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!


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