Confusion – Double Bind or Connection in the Classroom

Posted on October 14, 2010 by Jeff Bloom

Recently, I was reading part of "A Letter to My Students" that I had sent them a few days earlier. Among the ideas that I mentioned were ideas of learning as non-linear and of learning as pattern thinking. After I finished a student asked the question, “… but how do patterns fit?” She went on, “they seem to be linear.” I started to respond, then I asked her to explain and she said, “oh, never mind.”

It would have been easy to just continue on with what I had in mind for the rest of class, but I insisted that she explain. As it turned out, she was thinking of patterns as the way in which we might create more rigid, linear, and repetitive approaches to our everyday lives. (Pattern thinking on the other hand is a recursive approach to understanding our world.)

The point here is that we often avoid confusion by solidifying our views or by side-stepping the point of confusion, as the student above was about to do. This event was a classic double bind. The typical situation for a student is that she if she asks a seemingly stupid question, she will look like a fool, especially if she exposes her confusion. On the other hand, she doesn’t ask the question and appear like a fool, she may end up getting a lower grade on an exam or other form of assessment. It’s a no win situation. However, as both Gregory Bateson and his daughter, Catherine Bateson, have suggested, double binds are not necessarily bad events. Avoiding or side-stepping the double bind event is generally problematic since it perpetuates a pathology in relationship. However, if one engages the double bind as a point of potentiality, all kinds of possibilities can emerge. They can be points at which one can connect in ways not possible when immersed in the pathology of a double bind. They also can stimulate creativity, new insights, and novel ways of seeing and relating.

The teaching – learning situation is full of double binds. We see the results of double binds in student dropout rates, in students’ “playing the game” of going-through-the-motions with no real connection, in student passivity, in student resistance, in student “pleasing the teacher” actions, and in the full array of schooling pathologies.

(originally published January 23, 2010)

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