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How Do We Reintroduce Uncertainty?

with 4 comments

The quest for certainty blocks the search for meaning. Uncertainty is the very condition to impel man to unfold his powers.

Erich Fromm

We need to reintroduce uncertainty to the education of our students. From scripted curricula to mindless worksheets, our education policies have created classrooms where knowledge is gushing water, and struggling children are leaky buckets. Instead of examining why this theory of education is inadequate to describe how children learn and grow, we open the floodgates wider. A recent study found students in schools with high concentrations of minorities have more homework than schools with lower minority concentrations. Our education leaders opt for charter school models that keep students in schools longer hours – KIPP has a nine and a half hour school day with required Saturdays and at least two hours of homework. Scripted curricula and test-prep driven practices (try to) distill skills and knowledge into recited textbooks and worksheets.

Educating a child is not like filling a leaky bucket. Children learn when challenging situations force them to be more flexible, generalize skills and knowledge to new domains, investigate, construct understandings with peers, update old understandings, and use new sources of information in innovative ways. Our policies have taken investigation, inquiry, and social construction of knowledge out of the classrooms of students who need these opportunities the most. We treat science, social studies, and math like they are static bodies of knowledge rather than dynamic systems of inquiry. Writing follows a five paragraph or fill-in-the-blank format rather than an ongoing process of immersion in texts, drafting, revision, editing, and publishing for authentic audiences. Students find the answers to teacher-generated questions in while they read instead of generating their own authentic inquiry. Students are taught to see adults as the sole source of information in a top-down hierarchy rather than a learning web where students and the teacher construct knowledge together.

Uncertainty is scary. Teachers have to trust in a learning process that cannot be documented in regular intervals on standardized tests and worksheets. We have to sacrifice coverage for critical thinking – this takes time and innovation on the part of students, administrators, and teachers. Students have to trust their teachers and classmates enough to take on intellectual and social risks.

Uncertainty is the foundation of wonder, courage, and learning. How do you introduce uncertainty into your classroom (especially if your school has mandated scripts)?


Written by TeacherC

31 March 2009 at 9:28 pm

4 Responses

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  1. This is a great post. I wrote a post with a similar sentiment last year. I will ignore your question and hop up onto my soapbox.

    Teachers hate uncertainty. They were successful in school because they were so good at following scripted classroom assignments and getting gold stars so of course they implement the same systems in their classrooms.

    Teachers equate uncertainty with loss of power and lack of quality. The final results of an unscripted activity usually do no look like what the teacher envisioned.

    I think the foundation of inserting uncertainty in a classroom is having units based on solid essential questions that are conceptual and easily connected to the students lives–no right or wrong answer. As the unit progresses the students is uncertain as to what the right answer is and slowly develop their own unique conclusions.

    Thanks for the follow on twitter!

    paul bogush

    1 April 2009 at 4:32 pm

  2. I think uncertainty is about more than content – it’s about the community teachers build in their classroom. If your classroom is based on top down hierarchies, silent individual work, and lack of student expression, even if teachers try to insert uncertainty, it will not have the same positive benefit on students as it would in other classrooms.

    Also, teachers need to teach students how to deal with uncertainty. So, at the beginning of the year the classroom might resemble a more top-down structure, but teachers need to figure out how to remove scaffolds and transition into student-driven spaces by the end of the year. In my classroom management plan, I created a table – it has 3 – 4 phases of the year, what the scaffolds look like for classroom management, student and teacher roles, parent outreach, and how I know students are ready for even more freedom. Even though I have this plan and know classrooms like this exist, I doubt I’ll be able to create this type of classroom until I’m a seasoned veteran. Also, I need to find a school that supports my progressive outlook, and provides me with opportunities to collaborate with older teachers in meaningful ways.


    1 April 2009 at 4:51 pm

  3. In a traditional classroom content is certain, environment is uncertain. Every day a teacher knows what content will be given, the students can be certain. The students are also uncertain of who they can trust, who should be trusted, if they can take a risk, if they can make a mistake, etc. That uncertain environment leads to insecurity and a lack of control. In order to take control kids fall into certain patterns. Some follow all directions and reach for the gold stars never to take a risk or try something they are not certain they will be successful at. Creativity and curiosity plummet. On the other end student will show apathy and the “I don’t care attitude.” That puts them in control in an environment in which they cannot control, an environment in which they are not certain of the actions that will be taken in reaction to their actions.

    The more uncertain you are when you play around with the content, the more certain you have to be with the environment.

    If you had to define uncertainty would would it be? What would be the ultimate goal of introducing uncertainty? I just re-read your post and I replaced uncertainty with “empowering students.” Fits nicely 😉

    Great conversation.

    paul bogush

    1 April 2009 at 7:11 pm

  4. I’m talking about a specific kind of uncertainty – not anarchy in the classroom (you can have routines, trust, etc and create an environment with complicated intellectual challenges. If anything, a strong community and norms must be in place for uncertainty to work). I think I framed my arguments with the term uncertainty because everyone talks about “empowering students”. KIPP says they empower students and they have the most rigid environment you can have in a classroom. I think one of the keys to student empowerment is trusting your students enough to handle intellectual uncertainty.


    1 April 2009 at 8:18 pm

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