Learning From Uncertainty

Students go to school to learn. What they learn is what is already known. Who was the first president? What is the boiling point of water? Why are leaves green? What is the formula for the area of a circle? Even complex questions like “What caused the Civil War?” are generally presented in a way that suggests that the answer is certain. As students get older, in middle school and certainly in high school, it is critical to make a transition to complex questions and problems that do not have “right” answers. For teachers whose impact is often measured by their ability to meticulously orchestrate the learning processes of 150 teenagers, this uncertainty can seem daunting and counterproductive. To me, questions without clear answers are the most engaging and educationally important ones.

Last year, one of our student’s parents shared Amy Cuddy’s 2012 TED Talk entitled “Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are.” Cuddy’s TED talk is enjoyable and memorable, and at minute 16 it gets even better. Before the first presidential debate a few weeks ago, students and teachers working with me at Loudoun School for the Gifted watched it together during our “advisory” period to discuss the importance of nonverbal cues, with the goal of having students think about how they present themselves in college and job interviews. It was also a great primer for the Presidential debate, because nonverbal cues play a significant role in voters’ perceptions of candidates. Go ahead and take 21 minutes to watch the TED talk now, and don’t just jump to the end. [Note to reader: You should go to YouTube now, I’m not going anywhere]

Now that you’ve seen it, it’s time to make things complicated. Much of what Cuddy discusses is based on research that is well-established and replicable. Cuddy’s own research on “Power Poses,” however, has been criticized because some who attempted to replicate it were not able to do so. I learned this from a parent after I had shown the talk to students and after they began enthusiastically sitting and standing in power poses (think Wonder Woman).

As a teacher who has just given students information that might be wrong, or incomplete, what do you do next? I chose to dive deeper into the complexity and uncertainty, to show my students what to do when they don’t know, and, in this case, when no one knows.

The first thing I did was share one of the articles that presented the criticism of Cuddy’s work. Then, when we returned to school on Monday (the day of the Presidential debate), I gave students an overview of the Cuddy controversy. Interestingly, it is part of a much larger debate about the quality of social science research, which was prompted when a large-scale effort to replicate 100 prominent social science studies found in 2015 that the majority could not be replicated. And, as some social scientists were citing flaws in existing studies, others were citing flaws in the quality of the efforts to replicate them. I shared all of this with the students, so that we all were left wondering: should we trust Cuddy’s findings or not?

Fortunately, given my goals as a teacher, there isn’t a right answer to this question, at least not yet. So I could say the three words teachers, parents, and politicians don’t say often enough: “I don’t know.”

That there is no right answer is critical because it forces us to work for what is far more valuable when solving complex problems in real time: the best possible answer. I believe that we have to spend a significant part of every school day working with students on questions without clear answers, but with a body of evidence to evaluate. This changes students’ daily orientation from memorizing to reasoning. This is a fundamental shift from teachers teaching students what is known to teachers working with students to research and reason about what isn’t known yet. This shift is essential and it will make every school day, and every school, better.

As adults, students will face new questions and challenges in their roles as citizens and professionals. In other words, we have to prepare our students to respond to problems no one has seen before. You can’t just Google the answer (as an aside, whenever I write a sentence like the previous one, with a reference to current technology, I wonder how long it will be before it makes me look hopelessly out of date, like “I put a new cassette player in my car to replace the 8-track player“—which I actually did in high school).

Working with teachers on ill-structured, uncertain, and complex problems at school makes school better in a number of ways. It means shifting away from textbooks to more current, meaningful source material. It means students working together with teachers as colleagues, which makes doing the work something you’re a part of, rather than something that just happens to you. There is no sage with all the answers, so students learn they’re going to have to work to find the answers and, when they do, they’re making an original contribution. In other words, students see themselves as active problem-solvers, not as passive spectators. There may never be a right answer anyway, so students will have to be comfortable with uncertainty. Students will have to collect information from many sources, determine the relative quality of the information, and then weigh the information to reach a justified conclusion. This is exactly what they’ll need to do for the rest of their lives. Finally, working to find the best possible answer given what is known means that you will be in “perpetual beta,” revising your answers as new information becomes available.

To make school a better place to be, and to prepare students for the future, let’s start working with them on questions that do not have clear answers, so that teachers and students confront uncertainty together and do the hard work of arriving at the best possible answer.

This article was published in Loudoun Now on November 4, 2016.