I Learned to Confuse Students from Mr. Kreider

Mr. Kreider was the most confusing teacher I ever had, and one of the best.

“I don’t hold hands in trigonometry,” he said on the first day of class. Some teachers think it’s their job to keep students from making mistakes. Not me, I don’t give step-by-steps. My job is to let you make mistakes and watch you dig out. So if you aren’t tough, sign up for some other twiddle-your-thumbs math class.”

We didn’t go to Mr. Kreider’s class to hear answers. Mr. Kreider placed challenges front and center. He believed that stretches of confusion between moments of clarity were positive and necessary for learning.

Mr. Kreider asked us questions, many beginning with the words: What if . . .? And he helped us to think about our thinking.

We learned from Mr. Kreider to keep bearing down. Gradually, we became tough-minded. Problems began to intrigue, rather than frighten us. And we’d do anything to earn the smile that would creep across his face when our haze lifted.

Now and then, Mr. Kreider ended his class by reading a letter from a college kid.

“I’m sitting in college honors calculus, “students liked to write. “waiting for everyone else to catch up.”

And this gave us hope.

Mr. Kreider gambled with his teaching style. Confusion is powerful. It can move students quickly to frustration and then to giving up. But it can also lead to curiosity and motivation and deep engagement.

So how can you perplex students without damaging them?

  • Normalize confusion as a part of learning. Mr. Kreider would say to us: This is a tough problem. You’ll feel frustrated and want to give up. But hang in. Work together. See what you can do.
  • Limit confusion to content problems. Everything else—what you say, what you do, and what you expect—should be clear. We knew exactly when homework was due for Mr. Kreider and the schedule of his tests and what they would cover. Mr. Kreider’s words had no ambiguity.
  • Scaffold carefully. Not enough support shuts down learning. So does too much support. Mr. Kreider adjusted his scaffolding for an upper-level honors high school class. Know your students.
  • Offer social-emotional support. Like the spoonful of sugar with medicine, empathy makes high expectations palatable. Mr. Kreider was a crusty soul, but he created a community of learners. We were proud to be his students.

Through my thirty years of teaching, Mr. Kreider stayed in my head, reminding me to ask questions instead of give answers, to reach high, and to hold strong when students whined.

 

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