Supporting teachers to navigate uncertainties in rapidly changing times

Dr Rosemary Hipkins, NZCER

This is the third post in a series exploring the challenges of sitting with uncertainty when responding to complex challenges. This focus on uncertainty emerged as unfinished business from my recent book Teaching for Complex Systems Thinking. My context is teaching and learning at the school level, but many of the ideas apply more widely.

I began the first post with a focus on supporting students to learn to be more comfortable with uncertainty. As I worked on this challenge, I came to the realisation that this goal can’t be achieved until teachers themselves have access to practical support to deal with the complexities they face day to day. The second post picked up on this conclusion and briefly outlined the nature of the multiple uncertainties that are an integral part of teachers’ work, every day, and hence unavoidable. I then introduced the whole additional layer of uncertainties arising from the Covid 19 pandemic and drew on Laura Thomas’s plea to “park” any additional sources of stress and uncertainty while schools cope with the highly uncertain and volatile conditions created by the pandemic.

This brief summary provides the backdrop to my third post. As I write, New Zealand is experiencing a wave of Omicron infections sweeping through the country, making Thomas’ plea even more cogent than it was at the end of 2021. With that reality front-of-mind, I begin with several snapshots of advice about practical strategies to support teachers to navigate the current uncertainties in ways that do not overwhelm them. Laura Thomas suggests minimising decision-points in each day by creating, or employing, appropriate personal, professional and pedagogical routines, and scaling back on introducing any new initiatives for the meantime.

But what about initiatives that are already underway and perhaps at a point where stopping them might stall already gathering momentum? One example in NZ is the introduction of the new Aotearoa New Zealand histories curriculum, which was well underway before the Omicron wave struck us. My instinct here is that we should keep going, with a focus on what’s really important (i.e. don’t sweat the small stuff meantime). There is much in this new curriculum to unpack. One example is the explicit attention given to building knowledge of contexts, which is structured into the “know” strand of this curriculum (see diagram, copied from the website).

Once I understood the key difference between the “know” and “understand” strands of the new curriculum, this feature really resonated for me. Chapter 11 of my new book focuses on how to choose contexts that will support systems thinking, prompted by the work of Bronwyn Wood and Mark Sheehan. I had neglected this topic until prompted by their work—it was one of the last chapters I wrote. Wood and Sheehan advocate strongly for explicit subject-based advice and support for choosing both content and contexts that will successfully support transformative change. Such support could address the challenge that too much autonomy can feel like abandonment (see first post) while also ensuring that the rich potential in the new curriculum is actually realised in practice.   

Here’s a different type of suggestion again. Many teachers will take steps to avoid uncertainty when they are required to meet narrow accountability targets. If we want teachers to flourish in messy times of change, Jordan et. al (2014) suggest that introducing any accountability-focused policies is best avoided. They argue that meaningful change in the assessment-accountability conversation can only be achieved if “teaching essences” are taken seriously as an integral component of any change.

These three examples are quite different and yet they have an underlying commonality. All of them highlight the complexity of teachers’ work, and the challenges of making—or even just responding to—pedagogical change.  

Should we really park attempts to try to make changes to the pedagogical status quo, even as so many aspects of our day-to-day life are changing relentlessly? My thinking stalled for a time as I pondered this point. I felt torn. I can see how much pressure there is on schools and teachers and yet I can’t help wondering about the opportunity cost if we simply stop trying to make meaningful changes. Will things ever go back to the old “normal” or will we squander a chance to address long-standing challenges in education if we deliberately stall just when things are so up in the air that change opportunities might become more apparent? I’m thinking, for example, about equity challenges that have become so much more visible during the pandemic.

Using an idea from complexity theory to think about this dilemma

Complexity thinking to the rescue! A comment in a paper by Israeli philosophers of education made me aware that I was still thinking about the possibility of change in linear terms—specifically one-step-at-a time incremental changes designed to improve the current system. Gilead and Dishon (2021) introduce the concept of “strange attractors” from chaos theory to suggest that making linear adaptations might actually be holding us back from finding new and more meaningful solutions to the complex challenges we currently face.

What exactly are strange attractors? Here’s an example of the many wonderful fractal-like images that can be found on the Internet. This comes from a website that offers economic advice. I was looking for a non-mathematical account, and much of this one is set in the context of our personal learning of something as basic as the alphabet.

Notice that there are two intersecting systems. Each system can be thought of as a sort of basin—things and events in the system tend stay inside their current basin in a state of chaotic interaction that nevertheless has an underlying   stability. Incremental changes and adaptations only serve to deepen the basin and make transformative change less likely than ever. As one example, Gilead and Dishon point out that the rapid development of Zoom technology during the early stages of the pandemic has served to consolidate current lecturing practices in tertiary institutions, and this has happened at the expense of more transformative possibilities for other types of learning interactions between university   faculty and their students.

The implication for transforming an entrenched system is that we need to find ways to move the system to a different basin of attraction. The fly in the ointment is that it’s not possible to predict (in linear cause and effect terms) what sorts   of changes might have this effect. As a starting point Gilead and Dishon recommend developing a vision that could have a “pivotal role in stirring systems towards the desired objective” (p. 8). They say that such a vision can help reduce uncertainty and ambiguity, by giving people a way to navigate current complexities as change unfolds.

This seems to me to be very sensible advice. I quickly thought of a rich example from our own research programme. Two of my colleagues recently studied the processes involved in changing the timetable in five case study schools (Eyre & Watson, 2021). As anyone who has tried will know, this is a good example of a complex change. This research found several underlying commonalities, even though the actual timetable and associated practices looked quite different in   each school. First and foremost, these schools worked on their vision. They had a clear sense of why they wanted to make changes to the timetable, and subsequent decisions flowed from there.

The ideas that I have outlined here seem to me to hold the interesting kernel of a possibility for reframing our responses to complex changes. Anticipating endless adaptive tweaking of the current system just feels exhausting right now. What if we could go for simple but more radical innovations that stir the system enough to flip the basin of attraction to a new state? This question is easy to ask of course—how we might practically go about enacting such possibilities in highly uncertain times is more difficult to envisage. That will be the focus of the next post in this series.                                       


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

Photo credits: 
1. Aotearoa NZ’s Histories 
2. Armstrong Economics.


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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