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Helping Students Deal with Uncertainty in the Classroom

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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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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Peter Pappas's picture
Peter Pappas
Exploring frontiers of teaching, jazz, yoga, Macs, film


Thanks for making a strong case for uncertainty. As I pointed out in my recent post, "Teachers, Have the Courage to be Less Helpful" we're giving a generation of kids practice for predictable procedures. This comes at a time when the demand for routine skills has largely been eliminated by automation.

Of course students need some scaffolding, but let's know when it's time to "take off the training wheels" and give student choices in some of the elements of a typical lesson - content, process, product and evaluation.

Frazer's picture
Professional Development in Math

The idea of promoting confusion among students is so foreign to the assembly line paradigm of education. It is only when students are unsure, I like the word uncertain, about how to procede, whether they are correct or on the right track, and whether what their peers are saying, that they most engage passionately with the situation or with peers in making sense (coming into equilibrium) of either disparate information or the accuracy of the solutions before them. From the uncertainty comes the most profound "AHA" moments. It seems it is what we as teachers live for.
To see students make their own sense, to empower them with the thrill of deep and connected learning, to see the passion and excitement in their voices, eyes and all things non-verbal, to see a degree of personal efficacy, mathematical confidence and power become evident in a student, leads us, student(s) and teacher, to a transcendent place. A place that is good and right not just for the moment but also implies positive significance for the future.

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator


Great points. You are obviously a died in the wool constructivist.

If every step were programmed, we would never learn to ride a bicycle, work a clutch, or dive into a pool. Success with all of this leaves the learner open to much more uncertainty in learning. Learning is messy, and usually confusing at first. We have an obligation to help the students get used to it and thrive in it, especially when they find themselves in areas that are brand new to everyone.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator


You are a brave one. I have to admit that I have had a few teachers that were less than helpful, but I am sure that is not what you are talking about. Socrates had it right- never give the students an answer they can figure out for themselves. It takes more time and patience, but the learning is deeper and longer lasting. Good article by the way.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

Steve Thornton's picture

I recently undertook a very brief analysis of part of the proposed Australian curriculum: mathematics, and wrote this as an article called "In search of uncertainty" in an Australian journal Curriculum Perspectives.
The Australian curriculum document has statements such as "Teachers should base their teaching on what the students already know, should make explicit the subsequent key ideas, should ensure tasks are posed at an appropriate level of challenge, and should offer feedback on activities, standards and directions as often as possible". Hard to argue with at one level - it all sounds very positive, emphasises the teacher's role in orchestrating learning, the need to know where your students are at etc. But it also sounds very programmed. Where is the uncertainty? In my experience real learning takes place when we don't actually know what the outcomes might be, and where students are allowed and encouraged to fumble around with ideas and problems that they haven't always seen before (or even that the teacher hasn't seen).
Thank you Ben, Peter and Frazer for your contribution to my little "down under math quest" to introduce some uncertainty and fuzziness into our mathematics curriculum.

Craig Messerman's picture
Craig Messerman
9th and 10th grade science teacher from Missoula, Montana

I immediately thought of Invitation to Inquiry by Tik Liem, which is a collection of simple science demonstrations which have uncertain outcomes. I use some of these, but mainly over the years I have been replacing the recipe labs with less structured, more open-ended versions. I love strange outcomes, as long as students think critically about the results. Unfortunately, many of my students have been programmed to follow the paths constantly set out for them in our educational system. It needs to be more student-centered right from the start.

Zandra's picture
retired high school and middle school teacher/ english + reading san antoni

Students who are quite below grade level often need practice using the inquiry method of Socratic teaching. (Confession: I never called it that;We played "100 Questions") I would hand out a very short passage with 3or 4 questions. My first question was : "What do you notice?" Frequent answers "words" "writing"- From that point one may branch out to how words are used, look at headings, Study a graph or picture using a caption or title, forecast the content of the article, etc. You must, of course be quick on your feet, as students will often begin in the strangest ways. If you are interested you could check out the practical ones- One for elementary math is :

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator


You definitely understand that science labs are supposed to be messy (not in terms of neatness- in terms of results). I agree. We need to get away from the recipe type labs and do some actual investigations. I worked with the Ford PAS program one summer and their curriculum asked students to come up with experiments that would test the strength of certain plastics. The students came up with some very creative experiments. The bottom line is that we need to trust students a little more. They are intelligent, creative and intuitive if we let them be.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

[quote=Craig Messerman] I use some of these, but mainly over the years I have been replacing the recipe labs with less structured, more open-ended versions[/quote]

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator


That is what all teachers should do. Help students to observe and think critically. I heard about a story when I was doing my student teaching. An aspiring scientist was excited to be the student of a famous research scientist. The first day of class he expected to be blown away by the tremendous knowledge this man possessed. Instead, the professor simply plopped a specimen jar containing a dead fish and told the student, "Tell me what you see." "A dead fish", was the reply. "Look closer." was the answer. For two weeks all he did was look at the fish. Then he really started looking at the fish, taking notes, making drawings, jotting down questions and making suppositions. He looked up things about the fish, measurements, size, coloring, genus, species, phylum, and the fish came alive for him--alive with information- not just a dead fish. He learned more from this class than any other because it started out by simply looking at the fish--and then grew to wanting to learn more about the details. KWL cannot hold a candle to this kind of preparation. Good post.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

[quote=Zandra]I would hand out a very short passage with 3or 4 questions. My first question was : "What do you notice?" [/quote]

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