'It's Confusing' vs 'I Don't Understand'

Unlike other pedagogical approaches, our workbooks and classes attempt to take the student out of the comfort zone where very little happens because the problems posed have fairly obvious solutions. We teach both parents and students that some challenge is the price we have to pay for making real progress in problem-solving ability.

It is not playing the game that hurts, it is the failure to fulfill the expectation to win that hurts. This expectation to win is a cultural factor. Parents need to practice the expectation that the game will be played, not that it will be won. Before we can win, we must learn how to play. Expecting that we can constantly win while we learn is surreal. Consider that you can’t always win in chess or basketball. To improve problem-solving ability optimally, students should cultivate the attitute that making a serious attempt to solve a problem is almost as valuable as finding the solution.

Why, if the child complains that a problem is hard, do parents blame the problem? If you sprain an ankle while skiing do you blame it on the snow? Frequently parents say “I’m afraid she will hate math if it is frustrating.” Frustration when doing math is partly learned from the parent who abhors having to spend time to teach the student how to tackle challenges. Frequently, parents dislike difficulty and demand ideal materials - the materials that are perfectly matched so that they are only a little more difficult than the student finds doable. However, such a set of materials would be impossible to create, because each student is different.

One peculiar phenomenon in education is the development of the “it’s confusing” cult. Lately, on encountering a problem that takes them out of their comfort zone students say “it’s confusing” rather than “I don’t understand”. Their perception is not that they should make an effort to understand the topic but that the topic should be tailored to their ability or willingness to comprehend. As an instructor, while I am passionate about clear and concise presentation, and about building all the bridges needed for comprehension of the problem statement, I also believe that there are limits to the amount of explanation a problem statement should give. After all, it is a puzzle.

If the student finds the problem statement “The father has half the amount of money that the mother had before spending 10 dollars, which represented half of her money, on a pair of scissors,” then this does not mean that the problem statement should simplified - after all, if simplified enough times it eventually changes precisely into the problem’s solution. The problem statement is not “confusing” - it is crafted so as to engage the student’s logic and ability to compare amounts. If we were to replace it with the clear statement “The father has 5 dollars”, we would also eliminate all of the problem solving steps. Of course, it is always possible that a problem is unclear at stated; for example, it may give contradictory data or it might clearly ask for a unique solution when multiple solutions exist. Such problems are not “confusing”; the correct technical term is “ill-posed”.

So why do the students prefer to say “it’s confusing?” In this way they evade the responsibility to produce a solution. If the problem statement is confusing, attempts must be made to fix it before the student could attempt to solve it. Almost magically, saying “it’s confusing” transfers responsibility back to the instructor who has to re-phrase the problem statement.

At Goods of the Mind, we work hard to make sure all of our problem statements are well-posed questions that do not deserve to elicit the “it’s confusing” response from students.