Embracing Uncertainty in Teaching, Learning and Life – a question of balance

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I have been uncertain about how to engage with this week’s topic Embracing Uncertainty – Week 3 of Dave Cormier’s Course on Rhizomatic Learning.

I have just listened to the Google unHangout recording and read all the posts relating to this week’s topic in Google +. I have been following the Twitter stream (#rhizo14), checking in on the Facebook group  and have tried to keep track of as many blog posts as possible (aggregated on Matthias Melcher’s blog , with comments scraped by Gordon Lockhart). I have also tried to come at this afresh and not be over-influenced by my prior experience.

It has struck me that one of the problems I have had is that the word ‘uncertainty’ means different things to different people and that in some respects we have been ‘talking past each other’.

Some are talking about uncertainty in relation to not knowing which path to follow or what is going to happen next, others in relation to teaching without having all the answers, and others in relation to the validity of knowledge and the question of what is truth?

For Dave – uncertainty means accepting that ‘not knowing is something we all share’ and lies at the heart of rhizomatic learning. Uncertainty is related to abundance of information. According to Dave, in the past ‘certainty’ was created through a scarcity of information. ‘We were supposed to get it all’. But now with so much information it is impossible for teachers to have all the answers. Teachers are now more uncertain, than in the past, about their ability to answer learners’ questions.

Uncertainty is also about not being able to predict what is going to happen in the future and therefore not being able to predict what we might learn. (This relates to my interest in emergent learning and environments that promote emergent learning.)

I can see that in some ways our pathways through life may not be as certain as they used to be, particularly in relation to employment. Nowadays, many people, if not most, will have a number of jobs during their career. There is no certainty that they will be able to stay in the same job or even in their own country throughout their working lives. And we know that in many aspects of society, change is coming at us much faster than it ever has in the past.

Jolly Roger said in the Google unHangout that ‘Uncertainty is not a big deal’ and John Glass in Google + writes ‘Uncertainty is a given, IMO. Or to put it another way, no one knows what is REALLY going on.” And Keith Hamon, thinking of the aboriginal nomads, reminded us that rhizomatic learning is not new.

So is life and/or knowledge any more uncertain now than it ever was? Is there a ‘big deal’ that we have to address in relation to uncertainty or not? Jolly Roger says not, but Dave seems to think there is, otherwise he wouldn’t have focussed a whole week of the course on this.

Life has always been unpredictable/uncertain – always will be. We never know what is round the corner or what life will throw at us. We can try to minimise the risks, but we can never be in ultimate control.

So being uncertain about where you are going is not the big deal. There are probably more paths now to choose from than in the past, but the future has never been 100% predictable.

Sharing ‘not knowing’ might be a bigger deal. Teachers of course have always known when they ‘don’t know’, but maybe the change is in sharing this with learners and encouraging learners to share their lack of knowing with each other. Of course it’s all a question of balance. Learners won’t appreciate a teacher who knows nothing.

Sarah Honeychurch asked in the UnHangout ‘Is all knowledge up for grabs?’ Has the nature of knowledge changed? I can see that this could/would create lots of uncertainty. Is this the really big deal in relation to uncertainty?

I don’t know the answers to any of the questions I have been raising, but my research suggests that its not helpful to think in terms of all or nothing, certainty or uncertainty, one path or multipath, sharing or not sharing etc. Better to think in terms of scale from less to more, i.e. less uncertainty to more uncertainty, less sharing to more sharing and so on. And then for any given context – and each context is unique – consider what balance is needed to support learning.

Like Karen Young  ‘I am not sure about the idea of embracing uncertainty’ – because for me it’s not yet clear what that means.

6 thoughts on “Embracing Uncertainty in Teaching, Learning and Life – a question of balance

  1. Maha January 31, 2014 / 9:15 pm

    Hey Jenny, thanks for this… It is slightly different from your other posts, in that I feel your own voice comes through a little more. I always appreciate how your posts bring together ideas from across the course, and your voice is always there, but today I felt like I got to know you a little more, if that makes any sense?

    I think someone in the hangout (maybe Dave? Was listening eith my eyes closed hehe) said that in some contexts we need to talk about some things as if they are certain in order to have a conversation. We can’t keep questioning everything all the time or we will never have a conversation. That makes sense.. So in a teaching context, learners can have some structure/certainty (e.g. We meet x days a week in y place, our general topic is Z, our teacher values in-class participation, the class has a final project, etc.) and some sort of leeway for uncertainty (e.g. Some classes might be cancelled due to political unrest e.g. In Egypt, but we will make them up in some way online; there is freedom in the project topic; each learner can have their own goals and these can change throughout the course, etc.). Nothing revolutionary here, but i am just brainstorming out loud.

    I am one of the people who sees uncertainty as a given, mostly. I find it generally strange if someone doesn’t think so, but i also recognize the paradox of a “dogmatic” view of being “certain about uncertainty”, you know? So maybe some things can be considered certain within a particular context and time frame under particular conditions… But these are all ‘imposed’ conditions in order to create structure from chaos, not externally existing and unchangeable… I don’t know…

  2. jennymackness February 3, 2014 / 8:31 pm

    Hi Maha – I used to be a ‘black and white’ person in my youth – but now I’m much more a ‘shades of grey’ person – hence the reference to looking for balance. Thanks for your comment. Jenny

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