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In Praise of Uncertainty

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Perhaps the most undervalued quality in primary and secondary education is uncertainty. Students are rewarded for getting things "right," and uncertainty is seen as an undesirable quality to be remedied. But in the real world, almost everything good comes out of uncertainty--that's the space that sparks invention and creativity, and, critically, it is the space in which knowledge is developed. Failure to live in uncertainty not only denies students a chance to develop the kinds of capabilities they need to live in a complex world, it gives them a false view of the very knowledge they are studying.

You can see this problem most pointedly in the sciences. High school (and even some college) students seem to think that English is the place for interpretation, whereas math and science are the places where there is a right answer. But this couldn't be further from the truth. Consider a study that compared college and graduate school experiences with science. The authors find that undergraduate science majors view scientific knowledge as objective and fixed, emerging cleanly out of the five-step method laid out in their textbooks. When these students undertake significant lab work in graduate school, however, they realize that making science is in fact a messy and highly provisional process. This transition is initially disheartening for students but ultimately helps them to develop a more mature and realistic vision of the scientific method and, over time, to contribute new knowledge to the field. If we want our future citizens to understand science, they can't just learn Newton's laws or Darwin's theory of evolution, they need to know how science is constructed, from the inside out. As with the students in the study, this will actually first require a puncturing of the infallibility of scientific "truths," and then a resettling around a more realistic view of how science is made.

A related problem is that in too many classrooms, students are playing the game of school, trying to guess from their teacher what the right answer is. Teachers play into students' worst instincts when they present knowledge as fixed, and held by the teacher, which underscores the notion that students' role is to guess the right answer that the teacher knows. This problem is so pervasive that it is largely invisible to both students and teachers, for whom what I've described is just school, rather than a particular way of conceiving of school.

At the same time, we all know, deep in our bones, that the most significant learning comes out of confrontations with uncertainty. The pattern is generally that we hold some set of beliefs as central to our understanding of the world, and then there is a collision with a set of facts that calls these core beliefs into question. Then there is a period of searching and uncertainty, in which many different new possibilities are considered. This is generally unpleasant, because it is unmooring and destabilizing. Then there is a recrystallization around a new equilibrium, which holds until the next destabilizing event. Jack Mezirow has described this process as transformative learning.

There are teachers who already teach this way. I had one, when I was in high school, a man named John Roemer, whose particular talent was finding an opposing argument for any belief that you held dear. You thought you were an environmentalist? Okay, why are you prioritizing fuzzy squirrels over human jobs, you tree-hugger? More recently, I was in a class last week on Descartes, where students were reading small portions of the text, and pondering his argument that the only thing we can know for sure is that we exist. (Everything we think we see could be a dream, but the fact that we are thinking it means that we, at least, exist.) Well, if thinking implies existence, said one student, what about computers? Do computers think? They seem to, but do they exist? What about a vegetable state? In vegetable state, we seem to exist but we can't think. What would Descartes have made of that? After about an hour of these kinds of questions from students, the teacher tried to wrap it up with his summation at the end. But before he could even finish, the students were asking questions of this summation--once you let skepticism out of the bag, you can't put it back in.

What would it take to develop a system that consistently prioritized this kind of uncertainty? It would mean a whole series of changes to the way we do things now. In terms of policy, if there continued to be external tests, either from the state or from the College Board, they would need to change what they prioritized--less asking students to demonstrate that they know lots of discrete facts in the disciplines and more developing opportunities to really think using the tools of the disciplines. It would mean slowing down, dramatically--much more time on fewer things, unwinding the layers of those things rather than "covering" them and moving on to the next. It would mean developing different kinds of capacities and dispositions in students--not just "grit" but the ability to exist under conditions of uncertainty and seeing this struggle as productive rather than disabling. It would mean changing the views of knowledge of teachers, administrators, superintendents, and policymakers. Knowledge is not, ultimately, something that is fixed and should be passed on, but rather something that was created and could be created anew by the next generation of students. And it would mean re-socializing parents and students to see school less as a race that is won by those who acquire credentials, and more as a particular kind of place where young people go to confront the major questions of human existence. This world might be far off, but it is worth striving for.


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