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.

​Learn by unlearning; see by unseeing

I am just back from a couple of days at a conference at Stirling University  Scotland.

Roy Williams, Simone Gumtau and I presented a paper and ran a theory clinic (see  here for details)

As with all conferences for me – it’s difficult to come away and clearly articulate the conference’s value, or what I have learned, or been provoked into thinking about and exploring further (at least in the short term). And as with all conferences, I went to some sessions that ‘left me cold’, but to others which left me knowing that there is lots I need to think about further. The Stirling conference (overall) fulfilled the latter more than the former. I was introduced to lots of new ideas.

Recently I wrote a post about being a glass half empty person . After this conference I realize that is not quite correct – but that my interest in learning is stimulated by ‘unlearning’ and by ‘unseeing’ – an idea further stimulated by a paper presented by Jason Thomas Wozniak, Teachers College, Colombia University, USA.

I was lucky that this was the last session I attended, as for me it pulled together ideas from some of the other presentations that had been simmering in my depths somewhere and also related to our own papers in unexpected ways and particularly to the idea that what is not present is as important as what is present – which I first began to think about after reading a paper about 6 months ago by Terrence W. Deacon (2011).

This idea of ‘The Other’, learning not from what is, but from what is not, also seems critical to avoiding echo chambers and ‘group think’, a topic which has been discussed many times by MOOC followers. Jason Wozniac reminds us that

‘There is a long history of ancient and modern philosophers like Seneca and Foucault who sought to defamiliarise themselves with habitual manners of perceiving and thinking in order to acquire new approaches to reality.”

Wozniac’s work with learners in Brazil has sought to encourage learning through ‘making the world strange’. Paul Standish, another speaker at the conference, seemed to be aligned to this idea, albeit through different expression, when he urged us to ‘reclaim the concept of the amateur in a positive way’. I take this to mean that we have much to learn from the amateur and unexpected ways of thinking. Standish pointed out that teachers often close down dialogue and said that teachers need to learn how to be an authority without being in authority.

Wozniac also writes “Habitual perception conceals or makes us numb to many aspects of the world. We become in essence de-sensitized, and our participation in the world is impoverished’ … and he quotes Ginzburg, 2001, p.13) ‘To understand less, to be ingenuous, to remain stupefied: these are reactions that may lead us to see more’.”

Wozniac’s team attempted this with Brazilian learners, i.e. to encourage learning through unlearning and seeing through unseeing, through a series of exercises involving art, poetry and dialogue. This reminded me of when (years ago) I attended life drawing classes and for weeks we were not allowed to draw the figure as we saw her, but instead each week had to draw her from different perspectives, e.g. the figure as a mathematical representation, the figure as a landscape and so on. We, along with Wozniac’s adult teachers and students, were developing ‘negative capability’ (Keats 1935, p.72, quoted by Wozniac) .

‘That is to say that these teachers were ‘capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, and doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason” (Wozniac, 2012).

This idea of promoting uncertainty and mystery in learning is very closely related to the work I have been doing with Roy Williams and Simone Gumtau on emergent and embodied learning ….. And it seems to me that a focus on uncertainty necessitates consideration of what is not there, or ‘The Other’.

For Julie Allan (keynote speaker) this ‘Other’ was expressed as ‘Aporias’. She encouraged us to think in terms of expressions of doubt, e.g. How can we raise achievement and promote inclusiveness , or how can we promote autonomy and support collaboration (which seems very relevant to the FSLT12 MOOC ).

And our second keynote speaker Tom Popkewitz  talked of ‘double gesture’ i.e. by considering what is – you also necessarily identify what is not. For example he writes:

Today’s the “urban” family and child has new classifications of “troubled youth” and “the dropout”. Without too much effort, it is easy to realize that there is no “troubled” or “dropout” without theories about the child who is not troubled and who is different from the child “drop-in”.

According to Popkewitz you can’t understand the self without understanding ‘The Other” and trying to control the future has never worked.

As Paul Standish said, the aim of education is to lead to freedom. What I learned from the conference, is that this is the freedom to see things as we have never seen them before, to think things we have never dreamed possible, to embrace uncertainty and ‘strangeness’ and to welcome defamiliarisation. This freedom will no doubt feel like strange and unfamiliar territory, but to quote Michel Foucault

‘There are times in life when the question of knowing if one can think differently than one thinks, and perceive differently than one sees, is absolutely necessary if one is to go on looking and reflecting at all.’

References

Deacon, T.W. (2011) Consciousness is a matter of constraint- My New Scientist
Magazine issue 2840.

Ginzburg, C. (2001) Making it strange: The prehistory of a literary device. In Wooden Eyes: Nine Reflections on Distance (pp. 1-23). (Martin Ryle & Kate Soper, Trans.). New York: Columbia University Press)

Keats, J. (1935) The Letters of John Keats (p.72) New York: Oxford University Press

Popkewitz, T.S. (2012) Is there an Option: Theory as an Empirical Fact. http://www.stir.ac.uk/education/future-of-theory-in-education/

Wozniak, J.T. (2012) Exercises in Making the World Strange: Cultivating new ways of perceiving the world in teacher education programs and adult literacy and philosophy classes. http://www.stir.ac.uk/education/future-of-theory-in-education/

Uncertainty and learning

This week the Critical Literacies course bears the title ‘Change’ and Stephen has made a great post about ‘Patterns of Change’. Whilst a lot of this was not new to me (down to having a science background), I was really impressed by the lucidity with which the information was presented.

I have had a good look at the Report capacity, change and performance article as it relates to some research that I am currently involved with and I sent the link about 50 ways to foster a culture of innovation to my eldest son who is an entrepreneur, although if you are an entrepreneur you probably don’t need to read articles like this.  And I have lightly skimmed this – Technology, complexity, economy, catastrophe – Article Globe and Mail . But I haven’t yet had time to check out the other readings.

I’m going to be very interested to hear what Dave Snowden has to say this week (assuming that I can hear the presentation – I wasn’t able to hear Grainne’s last week) – because it seems to me that the critical literacy that is being addressed this week is an ability to cope with uncertainty. I don’t know enough about this to comment about it any further at this stage.

Related to this is Heli’s post today in which I was struck by her comment:

The Basic Message is that learning and development is not linear, it has individual phases, it goes up and down or straight foreward.

I would add to this that it can also go sideways – and diverge into areas that teachers do not expect. In thinking about this I was reminded of a course I went on a very long time ago about teaching mathematics to young children. We were asked to carry out an action research project about how children progressed through the National Curriculum (UK) for mathematics – and what were our findings? Well that the National Curriculum expected children to follow a linear course through prescribed stages – but did they? No – they certainly did not. They jumped all over the place – forwards in jumps instead of a nice linear sequence, sideways and even backwards.

This would suggest that a good teacher needs to be able to cope with this unpredictability in students’  learning – this uncertainty as to how learners are going to learn.