Rhett Allain, Pysicist and writer, muses in this short but sweet blog post that “learning goes through the swamp of confusion” (http://scienceblogs.com/dotphysics/2010/02/03/learning-goes-through-the-land/) . I like this! I like it very much. It reassures me that at least I must be doing something right in my learning adventures, since believe me, I get confused a lot. There are days when I scratch my head so often, my hair stands on end! I positively crackle with static. I’m on tenterhooks for answers, infested with the fidgets, bogged down, fogged up, and very much in the swamp Allain speaks of.
It turns out though, that the swamp of confusion can be a critical emotional state to go through in the quest for a variety of learning, that is fully integrated and endures (the kind of learning we are seeking to cultivate in the Feldenkrais Method). In the field of research that aims to understand how integrated learning occurs, as well as to elicit the conditions which support such learning, a case is made for the introduction, and even the necessity of “productive confusion” (D'Mello, 2012) and “desirable difficulties” (Bjork & Bjork, 2009). Sidney D’Mello and his colleagues (2012) go so far as to suggest that confusion drives deep learning. It forces us to stop in our tracks and come face to face with the gap in our understanding that has suddenly appeared.
D’Mello and his colleagues make the case that excessively comfortable learning environments, and cushy learning conditions, those without challenge, those without confusion, lead to complacency. In such cozy conditions, knowledge skates performatively at the surface of our consciousness, failing to penetrate to the depths below. Choosing the path of ease in this light is not always the right choice. It may feel good- oh in the way that Dorothy felt it was just sooooo right to lie down in the field of poppies-but a chance will have been missed, would have been missed by Dorothy too- had she not had the tin-man’s heart, and scarecrow’s head to urge her onward. In a similar vein, I once heard that the great mythologist Joseph Campbell, he who incited a legion of “new agers” to “follow their bliss”, felt a certain amount of dismay about the way that his advice had been taken up. It would have been better, he supposed at a later stage, had he urged his readers to follow their blisters!
Now I ought to admit that I was brought up as a Catholic, in an Ireland with a penchant for martyrdom. What I mean to say is, I may be, for that reason and others more personal, more than a little attracted to hardship and difficulty. When I was younger I was constantly hearing my Father and Mother lament the fact that I had to make everything so laborious for myself. It was true. I would always find the longer way round, with the potholes in the road and the dangerous ditches. I was forever blackberry picking my way into the thorniest hearts of the brambles and getting trapped there. Couldn’t I just have picked the berries dripping over the walls surrounding our garden where there was a safe path to reach from? No! I was certain, the juiciest and best would always conceal themselves in the tangled centre, anywhere that was difficult to get to, anywhere that would hurt. God loves a trier you see, and I became really good at trying so hard that I would stiffen myself into a huge knot, un-doable by anyone’s deft fingers, least of all my own.
This is not the kind of difficulty or confusion that learning researchers advocate for. Not at all! The challenges and "desirable difficulties" they describe as “productive” are the challenges that shake us, and wake us up, in the way a kind friend might jiggle you free from your sleep, in the warm carriage of a hurtling train, as a stunning sunset breaks the night open. “You’ll want to see this”, your friend might say. So you bask in the details of the light, sense the sensations, feel the feelings, and think this could change you forever-or at least boost your mood for the morning ahead, even if it would have been easier to stay asleep! "Desirable difficulties", and the confusion they elicit are like this in their opening out of a new, as yet unexplored time-space replete with unfamiliar information. So different to, and in dissonance with your familiar world of understanding are these new time-spaces, that they demand of you your full attention, and engage all of your innate resolution seeking abilities.
D’Mello, and others in the field, ground their theory construction in experiments that are arranged to research cognitive learning. I think it’s fair though, to make some parallels between the integrated sensory motor learning which potentially takes place in a Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement lesson (ATM), and the deep learning D’Mello and others argue can be arrived at through “productive confusion” and “desirable difficulties”. This might seem unlikely at first if you know a thing or two about the method, most particularly its emphasis on pleasurable, easy and light movements and its aversion to effort. Yet, you may also know, that the movements you are invited to explore often make a stark contrast with the fabric of your ordinary, everyday, habitual movement.
In itself, the being different to “your ordinary” does part of the work of waking your brain up, and getting its full attention. The Feldenkrais method though, has more up its sleeves than that! You may start a lesson for example, with something deceptively simple, like the rocking of your pelvis towards and away from your head. “Ok”, you think, hiding a smirk, “I know this, I can do this!”, BUT…. Can you do the same movement, with the same ease, while sitting cross legged, or while lying prone on your belly? Can you pull one leg up to the side and do the movement easily? Can you do that with the other leg? With each layer of instruction, though the movement being explored (rocking the pelvis towards and away from the head) is the same, the puzzle has somehow shifted, exposing unfamiliar territory, making new demands on a discombobulated system that has to wake up to find the resolution.
Then, there is the whole business of constraints. Vestige of Moshe Feldenkrais’ genius, constraints in lessons create desirable difficulties by preventing us from moving in one area, so that we will learn to move in another, more sleepy, less willing to share in the movement, sticking-part of ourselves. “Keep your right foot planted and your knee pointed towards the ceiling”, your teacher might insist, while you’re there lying on your back trying to find a way to roll your pelvis to the left. “Absurd”, you inwardly remark to yourself in revolt. “It would be so much easier to let the right knee fall inwards, taking the pelvis with it”. If you stay with the instruction however, if you abide with the confusion inducing constraint, you will find a way of articulating movement in your well-hidden hip joint, which will have you gliding like a swan when you eventually get to your feet at the end of the lesson and begin to walk.
Most of us, in addition to the "desirable difficulties" structured into ATM lessons, have difficulties built into our own self-systems, that we meet while moving. Sometimes, these are the traces of old injuries, a once broken ankle for example, that is keen on keeping itself held stiffly. That it has forgotten how to move through its full range of motion becomes apparent in movement lessons that require free motion at the ankle joint, a squatting lesson for example. The ankle then, provides a kind of speed bump for a system that will only best be able to resume with its intentions when it has figured out what the ankle joint is asked for within the larger picture of the movement.
Our in-built "desirable difficulties", sometimes showing up in ATM at the most unexpected moments, don’t just come from physical injury. Our experience in the world may have led us to develop strategies of moving (or not moving) that can also end up being one of the "desirable difficulties" we meet on the path to moving with more freedom and ease. Letting go of the lower belly, letting breath into the belly, for example, can be a considerable challenge for some, and not as a consequence of any structural limitations in the spine or pelvis, but for reasons socio-cultural and personal. Two of my favourite sociologists, Gillian Bendelow and Simon Williams, in a book that sought to argue for an “embodied sociology”, suggested that bodies come to know themselves best when they meet their own resistance. ATM is a chance to meet this resistance, be it in physical or emotional form, and to develop a clear understanding of our present limits, so that we may learn to work with and expand them.
Rhett Allain, as you’ll have seen if you followed the link to his article above, let’s the cat out of the bag, not only about confusion being part of the learning process, but also about the swampy nature of confusion. In his evocative words, “the swamp is icky”. What’s worse, when his students reach the swamp, and sense its “icky” nature, they think they must be in the wrong place (the fearful ones surely run in the opposite direction, shouting get me out of here!). Even worse still, some students come to land on the notion that if they are in the right place, they must be very stupid, why else would they be confused? This, in a nutshell had been my unfortunate history and characteristic response with confusion until I met the Feldenkrais Method. I would get myself into the gloopiest, ickiest, stinkiest part of the swamp and feel so ashamed by my stupidity that I couldn’t even think of admitting I was there, never mind asking someone for help. If you can’t admit you’re stuck (even to yourself), you stay stuck.
That was then, this is now! Now I’m learning to be more comfortable with confusion. I don’t even think of it as swampy or icky any more. These days I hit my confusion like a bad fog, and for that I know I have strategies. First I slow down. Then I turn on my fog lights, or in other words, my attention. I make my attention very awake and very bright and I shine it all around me. I gather details I would never have seen had I been speeding past at my usual gallop. My senses are more acute than usual. Because I can’t see so far, I hear more, I smell more, I feel more. I’m conscious of my every step, of making it wisely, carefully. I can go like this for miles. I can even, in my more enlightened moments, have a sense of wonder for the fog, its mysterious, amorphous shape, the way it puts a lid on extraneous noise, and its specific shade of miasmic grey.
It was the Feldenkrais method that convinced me of the possibility that confusion could be profitable, and that it certainly did not mean I had something to be ashamed of, a sign of something missing, a sign of stupidity. By my reading of the work, Moshe Feldenkrais believed that every human being has the innate capacity to work their way to and through blind spots in their self-image, and to resolve the difficulties they encounter on their way. Perhaps he would also have agreed, it is just these difficulties precisely that make the learning stick and that lead to the kinds of understanding that empower us to move in the way that we want and in the direction of our own choosing, unhampered by pain, and unencumbered by obsolete habit.
I lived for a while, with a woman who would shout “hurrah”, when anyone in the house became ill. ”Something to work with”, she would say, “something for you to learn”. This is going a bit too far (she was delightfully bonkers, I later realised), but… maybe we could all do with a little bit of rejoicing when we get to our foggy, or boggy or swampy patches of confusion. If you stay with yourself. If you draw on the resources you have, most of all your senses and your attention, you may learn something that will stand to you and stay with you forever and in the end make life all the easier.
Elizabeth L. Bjork and Robert Bjork (2009) " Making Things Hard on Yourself, But in a Good Way: Creating Desirable Difficulties to Enhance Learning" in Real World Psychology
Sidney D'Mello , Rick Dale & Art Graesser (2012) "Disequilibrium in the mind, disharmony in the body", Cognition and Emotion, Vol26(2)
Pages 362-374 | Received 14 Oct 2010, Accepted 12 Mar 2011, Published online: 23 May 2011
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