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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Helping Students Deal with Uncertainty in the Classroom

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

I did an experiment with a group of adult educators. I gave them very vague instructions on how to arrange groups. The goal was that each educator would participate in four different groups. I told them that the composition of each group had to be different. Some of the adults were willing to work it out, trial and error even. Others would get to a point and then realize that they did not understand completely what to do and then would ask questions.

A few even began getting upset at the lack of directions and were resistant. I was hoping that the adults would be able to work together to negotiate the groups, but the project failed entirely. One adult asked me, "Why didn't you just ask us to count off by numbers and be done with it?" The reason I did not do this was that this little experiment informed me of the flexibility of thinking of the group and helped me to customize the instruction I would be giving them.

From this simple illustration we can infer that our students in the classroom probably belong in one of these three groups: being comfortable with uncertainty, being uncomfortable with uncertainty, and being irritated with uncertainty. Some have tied this idea to resiliency but I view resiliency as the ability to bounce back or endure stressful situations. Uncertainty is different: It is messy, it is disorganized, it is unstructured, and it is organic. When doubt exists and the answer or path is not known beforehand, that is the essence of uncertainty.

One of the main goals of the educational approach known as constructivism is to prepare learners for uncertainty by helping them feel comfortable in postulating, guessing, hypothesizing, conjecturing, and testing their theories.

Unfortunately, we have socialized our students into the believing that not being certain is a bad thing, and as a result, few students are willing to take a risk and demonstrate their vulnerability.

Teachers need to inject a little uncertainty into their lessons every day because it engages students at the "analysis and above" levels. It forces the students to evaluate what they know and what they do not know and make a decision about what to do about it. For instance, let's borrow an example from author Steven R. Covey, where he uses a bucketful of rocks, then fills the bucket with sand, and then tops it off with water. Similarly, a math teacher could demonstrate the following problem,

"Here we have a 100 ml beaker that is filled with sand and it weighs 16 ounces. What is the volume of the sand? Now, I will add water to the beaker, right up to the hundred-milliliter mark. How has the volume changed? What is the volume of the water and the sand? What else can you tell me about this situation?"

This problem challenges students to think about what they know about volume and what assumptions they had made about the sand, mathematically, and scientifically. Depending on the age, various interesting student activities can be initiated to investigate how the true volume of the sand could be measured, or discovering other instances where the assumed dry volume is different or similar than liquid volume.

In reality, the uncertainty principle is an inextricable part of math, statistics and especially science. Matter of fact, it is accepted as fact that any research involves a certain amount of uncertainty. There is no such thing as an exact science, why would teaching and learning be any different? Students who feel confident in the face of uncertainty are better prepared to look at all the possibilities before choosing the best answer. These students are less concerned about being told what to know, and are more concerned with understanding why it should be known and how to know it.

How do you prepare your students for handling uncertainty?

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