Thursday, December 17, 2015

"...the only definite outcome is uncertainty"

The only thing we do know about the future is that is is uncertain. It surprises us. In our own lives and society, we know that unexpected challenges, problems and opportunities arrive. People and society is faced with everything from poverty and abuse to ISIS, climate change and natural disasters such as earthquakes and tornados. This doesn't even begin to talk about the uncertainty that we have about where technology will take us next. If for just one day, you were not allowed to use any technology that was invented in the last 15 years, what would your day look like? There would be no Facebook, no iPhone, so I would actually have to take a GPS with me. There would be no Netflix. Wait, there would be no YouTube. There would be no Wikipedia. Things are getting serious now. I would probably have to listen to a CD - oh the limitations to my playlist size! Scrutinise any part of your day, and you will notice the enormous influence that technology has had on our lives. Would we have been able to predict twenty years ago just how great the role of technology in our lives would be? You could try and argue with me, but if you just think about how many power outlet points there are in any given room in a house built this year compared to a house built twenty years ago...
"When contradictions, complexity and chaos
 combine with accelerating change the only
definite outcome is uncertainty"

Ziauddin Sardar sums up the ideas of uncertainty and complexity in today's day and age beautifully in his must read article, Welcome to the postnormal times; "When contradictions, complexity and chaos combine with accelerating change the only definite outcome is uncertainty"

It seems strange that the only thing we really do know about the future, is that it is riddled with uncertainty. Yet, in schools we seem to do little about preparing students for uncertainty. Instead, we give students timetables to tell them where to be every minute of their day. We tell them the learning objective at the start of the lesson so that they know what to expect and what to learn. We teach to a test or assessments, and we get upset if the questions surprise us. As teachers, we prepare our lessons, plan them out. In fact, how many schools and departments have the planning for the whole year ahead laid out, bit by bit? We are available to help students out when they get stuck. We tell student which strategies to use, what books to read and what thoughts to think. Before students learn to think about uncertain student finances, babies and children, political instability, we ask them what they want to be when they grow up. Then we ask them to make enormous investments in degrees that may or may not be useful as the market is too uncertain to know what will actually be useful. We help students believe that they just need to stick to the plan, and the all will be OK. There is no shortage of articles and research available about the disjoints between education and the workforce, both at a school and higher education level. Is it just me, or are the things that we teach, the ways we teach, actually doing the complete opposite of preparing students for coping with the unexpected and uncertain? And that's without getting me started on the helicopter parents!

I often hear teachers and parents talk about preparing students for the future. However I wonder if we have really thought about what this means. Does it mean teaching and learning of Shakespeare and Pythagoras as we have always done? But much like the economic ideas of continuous growth, that we perhaps try to do it better? Does it mean that we teach students coding and robotics? Perhaps it means that our schools should teach with devices, type those essays on Google Docs? Perhaps even collaborating on a Google Doc? Does it mean that we focus on things such as collaboration, problem solving, creativity, innovation?

So what then does teaching for and with uncertainty look like? It seems fitting that I am uncertain! However, my current approach to uncertainty involves rapid iteration and deep reflection. Hence, here are some of the things that I have tested and tried with various levels of success over the past year:

  • Design Thinking, the Scientific Method and PPDAC: You might wonder what these two have in common... As I see it, Design Thinking, the Scientific Method and PPDAC are problem solving approaches. Where Design Thinking uses empathy to solve problems, science and maths uses objectivity to solve problems. By teaching using these (and other) approaches side by side, I hope that my students begin to understand processes of problem solving, rather than simply looking for an answer. I hope that they learn to distinguish between the pros and cons of problem solving approaches, and learn to apply each approach accordingly. Or perhaps even to mix approaches when the moment is right.  In class, we explicitly discuss problems together and talk about what the best problem solving approach might be. 
  • When teaching maths in particular, sometimes I give impossible problems. Problems that can not be solved because I did not give enough information. Or sometimes I give problems with too much information. Sometimes I give problems that I have not yet taught the skills for. These problems are usually followed by reflections where we discuss our responses to uncertainty. Some of us get defensive, some of us act like we know when in fact we don't (and then sound very ignorant!), some of us simply give up, get distracted or even get angry. We talk about what might have been a better approach. We talk about what we could have done, alternative approaches. 
  • For some time now, I have also been an a fan of programmes such as Art Costa's Habits of Mind. This approach gives students strategies for 'knowing what to do when you don't know what to do'. It enables students to coach themselves through challenges by having strategies to draw on when they don't know what to do. 
  • Simulations: This year I was fortunate enough to co-teach with Steve Mouldey. Together, we ran an alien planet invasion simulation in class where students had to make decisions for themselves in a highly complex environment. This meant that students had to deal with real uncertainty and complexity on the fly. Without a doubt, this was some of the most powerful learning I have ever seen for a group of students. You can read more about this simulation here

Of course, as most of my experiments in the classroom goes, they only raise more questions...

  • If schools valued the ability to cope and thrive in uncertainty, would they want to measure it? How would it be measured?
  • What other approaches could I try to help my students cope and thrive in uncertainty? What does best practice for teaching and learning with uncertainty look like? Can there even be best practice for uncertainty?
  • How do my students feel about uncertainty? Do they feel as uncomfortable 'not knowing' as the adults?
  • Are teachers able and willing to work in a space where they don't 'know', a space where they too are uncertain? Are teachers able to challenge and redefine their identity as the one who 'knows' the answer? 
  • Why is uncertainty so uncomfortable? Why is uncertainty often associated with the negative rather than the positive? 
  • Is it foolish to be/act certain about the future?
With so many more questions, it would appear the the only thing I am certain about is that uncertainty is a key to thinking about Education Futures. Perhaps you are more certain than I? How do you think we might prepare students for a society fundamentally different than ours, so different that we can not know what to prepare them for? How do you think we might prepare students for uncertainty? Or perhaps, you think we shouldn't? 

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