Annie Murphy Paul writes great blog posts about learning and education. Her recent post is about the benefits of “feeling confused” as a way to improve your learning. We agree, as long as “feeling confused” isn’t mistaken for “feeling frustrated” from the effects of lazy eye (amblyopia).
Annie Murphy Paul notes that confusion can be a good thing in the educational process, even though we do everything to avoid it. We make educational experiences and training sessions as easy as possible for the learner.
She believes this approach is wrong, noting “scientists have been building a body of evidence over the past few years demonstrating that confusion can lead us to learn more efficiently, more deeply, more lastingly -- as long as it’s properly managed.”
The brain, she continues, is a “pattern-recognition” machine that identifies related events or artifacts and tries to connect them into a meaningful whole. When we rush in to provide an easy answer, we deny the brain the chance to dig deeper and think about a wide variety of potential explanations. We also deny a sensation confusion creates - the drive to figure something out.
These are excellent points, and they may explain why people figure out ways to survive with functional vision problems, such as amblyopia.
The Brain is Confused, So It “Figures It Out”
Your functional vision is more than just “eyesight.” Functional vision involves how you see and interact with an object in space, while eyesight involves how clearly you can see an object.
Your visual system, which is responsible for vision, involves more than just your eyes. It includes your eyes, brain and visual pathways. This is a highly complex, intricate system, and if or when something goes wrong, it can result in a lot of confusion - and not the good kind Annie Murphy Paul described.
In the case of amblyopia, or lazy eye, one eye does not see as clearly as the other eye. It may be farsighted, nearsighted, or be affected by other factors. The eyes send two different signals to the brain, and the brain cannot combine them into a 3D image.
Instead, the brain becomes confused, double-vision may result, and eventually, the brain shuts down the image from the “lazy eye.” The brain does not want to be confused, and neither do you.
When Can You Tell if a Child is Confused or Frustrated?
Annie Murphy Paul tells us that struggling to find an answer is a good thing. Your brain needs to work through all the options, exploring and problem solving. It needs the drive and the desire to solve the mystery.
But what if a child with a lazy eye struggles with schoolwork? What if they experience a headache, or have trouble focusing. Shouldn’t you urge the child to keep working, and fight their way through it?
The answer is no, not if a child has a functional vision problem. No matter how adept the brain is at problem-solving, there simply is no way for a child to fix the problem on their own. The child might adapt, as has been the case where people with double vision will knowingly choose one of the two objects they see -- but that’s more a survival tactic than a learning one.
So what should you do so you don’t confuse frustration for confusion?
First, keep an eye out for telltale signs of amblyopia. Does your child experience headaches? Does he/she have problems with depth perception? Does he/she experience a short attention span? Does he/she sometimes appear clumsy?
Second, if you suspect an issue, have your child seen by a developmental optometrist. These optometrists have received extra training in functional issues, and can provide a diagnosis and treatment plan specific to the condition.
Struggling to find answers is part of growing up. But becoming frustrated by a physical problem is different from the productive learning Annie Murphy Paul was writing about. Be sure to have your child tested if you suspect lazy eye may be an issue.