Learning productive ways to ‘be’ in uncertain times

Rosemary Hipkins, New Zealand Council for Educational Research

It took several years of personal learning, thinking and writing to shape my new book Teaching for Complex Systems Thinking. I have been exploring complexity and its implications for the classroom for a number of years now and I had anticipated many of the themes that emerged in the literature. Other themes surprised me, and some are still sitting with me as unfinished business. One of the more troubling themes is just how we might—practically—support students to be more comfortable in contexts where things are uncertain.

It’s obvious that many of the complex problems that face societies come with inbuilt uncertainties. The acronym VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous), which has been around since the 1980s, bundles these terms together. If we are serious about educating students for their lives beyond school, it logically follows that they will need to learn how to ‘be’ in highly uncertain futures. Such futures, which we can already anticipate, are likely to seem even more complex and uncertain as they evolve. For some years now, I’ve been talking about this VUCA challenge with various teacher groups. The challenge is easy enough to describe, but perhaps not so easy to address! Looking back, I wonder if our own capacity for sitting with uncertainty is a very real barrier.

How do we respond to uncertainty?

Based on his experiences of deliberately injecting an element of uncertainty into learning experiences for adults, teacher educator Ben Johnson has proposed three broad approaches to being in conditions of uncertaintybeing comfortable with uncertainty, being uncomfortable with uncertainty, and being irritated with uncertainty.  I suspect that my personal response varies from context to context. I can certainly think of times when I was irritated by unclear instructions, especially when learning to use new e-tools. And yet Ben begins his blog post with an account of how and why he might deliberately give unclear instructions for some tasks. This small ‘aha’ moment made me think again about the chapter of the book that addresses ways to choose productive learning contexts. Choosing contexts that include an element of uncertainty is implied throughout the chapter. It is an explicit focus in the section that addresses inherent uncertainties in gathering and processing data as part of authentic inquiry activity.  Tellingly however, I did not shape an explicit question about uncertainty in the chapter reading guide, choosing instead to focus on “uncomfortable” contexts. Uncertainty contributes to discomfort, but it would be a mistake to think that only charged and controversial contexts can introduce an element of uncertainty into learning experiences. This small insight could be a critical point for enabling change, for reasons I now briefly explore.    

Just after the New Zealand Curriculum (NZC) had been released, leadership coach Jennifer Garvey-Berger wrote an article for set: Research Information for Teachers that discussed different ways teachers and school leaders might respond to the autonomy now being demanded of them, given that NZC was structured to allow each school to design a local curriculum based on a broad national framework. I revisited this article as I pondered the challenge of how we as adults respond to uncertainty. Jennifer uses Robert Kegan’s theory of developmental stages in adult meaning-making in her leadership work and I wanted to check what she had said about managing our own uncertainty. Here are two telling comments she made:  

“If you are someone who looks for certainty and right answers (again common for those with socialised minds), you might mistrust a curriculum that does not come with right answers—maybe the people who developed this are not so bright after all! Maybe they did not know what they are doing?”

It is not that educators do not crave autonomy, it is just that some forms of autonomy feel more like abandonment than opportunity.

(Garvey-Berger, 2007, both quotes p. 28).

The idea of “socialised minds” is a reference to stage 3 of Kegan’s theory of adult meaning-making and is the stage which around 50% of adults reach but don’t develop beyond. One metaphor Jennifer uses for thinking about this stage is that you are “on the board” (you know your values, your professional culture, societal expectations etc.) but you are not the chair of the board. That responsibility lies with those who should be able to guide you in what to do next. To constructively and confidently take up the autonomy offered by NZC, Jennifer suggests, requires people to be at stage 4—in effect, to be the chair of their own board. But if this is a development stage which only around half of adults reach, it is no wonder that personal and professional uncertainty does not sit comfortably with so many. And yet, as I said at the start of this post, teachers do need to support students to learn to be more comfortable with uncertainty. How might they do that in ways that don’t make them feel compromised beyond their own comfort levels? Fortunately, it turns out that there are a number of practical ways to address this challenge. 

‘Good’ and ‘bad’ uncertainty

In a post titled Inviting Uncertainty into the Classroom, Ronald Beghetto makes a helpful distinction between good uncertainty and bad uncertainty:

“Bad uncertainty results from learning experiences that don’t include necessary supports and structures. In such situations, students have no idea of what’s expected of them. They also don’t know whether, when, or how they will receive support when they need it. When structure and support are lacking, chaos is likely to ensue. If on top of this lack of supportive structure we ask students to tackle complex challenges or ill-defined problems, then we really are inviting chaos into our classroom, presenting them with a double whammy of uncertainty.”

(Beghetto, 2017)

The potential for chaos can be a teacher’s worst nightmare! But the seeds of good uncertainty are also contained in this description. It will be important to anticipate the supports and structures that students might need and keep these in place. Students also need to know what is expected of them and why, otherwise they are likely to find uncertainty threatening too.

It turns out that there are a number of practical ways to achieve “good” uncertainty, while staying within the boundaries of a teacher’s own appetite for it. Beghetto proposes trying out a little “lesson unplanning”. This entails “replacing some predetermined element (such as the problem or process) with a to-be-determined (by the students) component”. In other words, taking one element of structure out of a familiar learning experience to open up opportunities for students’ ideas and experiences. Many teachers already do this of course—for them the challenge might be to reframe thinking about why they are doing so. Is there an opportunity to think more explicitly about when and how students are being encouraged to sit with uncertainty and not rush to a quick resolution? Examples of this sort are scattered through Teaching for Complex Systems Thinking, sometimes with an explicit focus on uncertainty but sometimes not:

  • Word problems in mathematics can be tweaked to add uncertainties that students could notice and debate while discussing how to solve the problem. There is a simple visual example in Chapter 2.
  • In Chapter 4 the familiar science concept of food webs is used to introduce the idea of “it depends” thinking. Other science concepts could also be taught in ways that make the contingencies of natural systems more visible.
  • The roll of a dice introduces an element of uncertainty to simulation game in Chapter 6 that explores the pushes and pulls that drive migrant flows between different nations.   
  • The importance of giving students more open design briefs in both creative (e.g. visual arts) and practical (maker space) contexts is discussed in Chapter 10.

I could go on, but these examples should be sufficient to indicate the variety and the breadth of curriculum opportunities. I hope they trigger thoughts of many more possibilities. The main challenge is to keep uncertainty clearly in focus if fostering it is an explicit focus for the learning action. I didn’t always do this myself as I worked on the book. The teachers who designed the dice game, for example, focused on using stock and flow diagrams as a systems thinking tool, and on fostering a compassionate understanding of the dynamics of migration in difficult circumstances. These are important learning targets to sit alongside the social studies “content” and it only occurred to me belatedly that a focus on the element of uncertainty in big life events would be another option for an additional learning focus.

Thinking further

There are other lines of inquiry I still want to dig into. Perspective-taking flags up as one way of introducing uncertainty, but I suspect there’s a bit more to unpack here and the link won’t automatically follow from the action. Another open question I have is whether there is evidence of a relationship between (supported) failure and learning to be in uncertainty. There is a body of literature on the topic of ‘productive failure’ and I plan to follow up. I’d love suggestions of other questions or areas I might also explore.


Teaching for complex systems thinking is now available online as an e-book from Amazon and the Book Depositoryhttps://www.nzcer.org.nz/nzcerpress/teaching-complex-systems-thinking

This post is the first in a series and was originally published on the NZCER blog. It is reproduced by permission.


Dr Rose Hipkins is a Chief Researcher at the New Zealand Council for Educational Research. Rose maintains a strong interest in the complex space at the intersection of curriculum and assessment practices. She was actively involved in the development of both the New Zealand Curriculum (NZC) and the National Certificates of Educational Achievement (NCEA assessment system). 

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