How teachers can use uncertainty to spark innovation

Tomorrow, students of all ages will celebrate Halloween, roaming their neighborhoods for treats and some spooky fun. At this time of year, it’s never hard to find a scary movie on television, or come across the “Monster Mash” on the radio during your morning commute. There is something fun about the uncertainty of fear when you know that only thing at stake is possible embarrassment. In the classroom, however, uncertainty can inspire either thoughtful curiosity or confusion and discomfort. We know that curiosity can be a great motivator for learning, so how do we make it comfortable to be uncertain?

I recently came across this great article by Linda Flanagan called “How to Spark Curiosity in Children through Embracing Uncertainty.” Flanagan’s article discusses recent research and writing about the power of uncertainty in an academic setting: “If students can be made to feel comfortable with uncertainty — if they’re learning in an environment where ambiguity is welcome and they are encouraged to question facts — then they are more apt to be curious and innovative in their thinking.” For example, if a student asks how clocks work, you can give them the definitive answer with diagrams on your whiteboard, or you can invite them to take a clock apart and share their findings with their peers. Both approaches might answer the question, but only one fosters curiosity and critical thinking.

In her article, Flanagan shares recommendations for student activities that are easily adaptable for teachers:

  • Assign projects that provoke uncertainty. Review your lesson plans from the points of view of their students. It might be uncomfortable to step into the student perspective, but it could be an invaluable exercise that help you refocus your practice.
  • Emphasize the current topics of debate in a field. Everybody has an opinion on education, and exploring “hot” topics may lead you to new ideas and practices.
  • Show how the process of discovery is often messy and non-linear. I have whiteboards in my office at the ESC that are filled with notes, ideas, and plans. These are great visuals of the ways that district leadership is working to support our school leaders, students, and teachers, and the team is always welcome to add to the “conversation.” Try keeping an “idea parking lot” in your classroom and see what kind of collaborative ideas might grow from it!

Accepting uncertainty in the learning process allows us to look past the facts and ask our questions anyway. Remember, just because “it’s always been that way” doesn’t mean it can’t be a different way that might be better!


Celebrating National Poetry Day

Today is National Poetry Day, a celebration of the ideas and words that inspire us, make us think, laugh, smile, and pause to reflect on the world around us. I spent my classroom years teaching in the early childhood and primary grades, so I have many favorite children’s poems that encourage readers to dream big:

Shel Silverstein: “Listen to the never haves, then listen close to me…Anything can happen child,anything can be.”
Dr. Seuss: “You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself in any direction you choose.”
Jack Prelutsky: “I am flying! I am flying! I am climbing unconfined, I am swifter than the falcon, and I leave the wind behind…”

As teachers, our words have the capacity to transform the young people in our care. With our support and encouragement, students will reach higher and strive for excellence. If this sounds like a great responsibility, well…that’s because it is! But it is also the absolute best job in the world.

I adore children’s poems, but for National Poetry Day, I’d like to share a “grown up” poem that is close to my heart. It’s called “To Be of Use” by Marge Piercy:

The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.
I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again

 I want to be with people who submergegirls-reading
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.
The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

These are words that inspire me and remind me of the phenomenal teachers we have at each of our schools. Teachers are, by nature, “people who submerge in the task” and “move in common rhythm” to help our students succeed. I am grateful to work alongside them each day.