This article was first printed in the Financial Times on 8th March , 2021, and has been reproduced with their kind permission.
In a recent radio interview about the pandemic, a distinguished professor was asked whether we need to learn to live with uncertainty. Her response was that “uncertainty is the enemy of wellbeing”. Yet the situation is more complex than that, especially for the young who have actively engaged with uncertainty in their lives under Covid-19.
Coronavirus has cast a shadow of doubt over many certainties. To realise that parents, teachers and even governments do not know what may happen can be destabilising. Yet research suggests that being open to uncertainty is important for wellbeing. It supports curiosity, deep thinking and hope. It should be central to children’s education.
My colleague, Dr Rebecca Webb, and I set out to find how uncertainty is affecting young people. We examined the diaries of more than 50 people aged six to 20 across England, written during the first lockdown last May. What was striking is the extent to which young people grapple with unknowns.
Their entries explore existential questions and the implications of government directives. They express fears, anger and confusion, plus the possibilities and joys offered by living under lockdown. They reimagine futures and engage humorously. One wrote: “We must all ‘Stay Alert’. Alert for what, someone walking round with a sign reading ‘I’ve got Covid-19’?”
Schooling emphasises certainty, with subjects mapped and measured, as defined by national curricula. On the surface, this seems to work. The teacher is certain what they must teach. The students are certain what they must learn. There are right and wrong answers. Those giving correct answers receive good grades and go off full of expectation into the world.
Yet the world they enter is filled with uncertainty. “We were never taught what uncertainty feels like,” one student told us. “Things were always planned out for us and we were always working towards something certain. The bubble of certainty begins to crack as we are on the edge of being poured into real life.”
In schools, young people face tough Covid-19 compliance rules but, on leaving the gates, they navigate many decisions without clear answers. This might include what to do if friends refuse to social distance or if families are vaccination sceptics.
Students need opportunities to work out how to respond to their feelings, external pressures and competing information. Most are conscious of uncertainty even if they struggle to articulate it. A mother told us that 10 months into the pandemic, she realised her 13-year-old daughter’s anxiety, when she said, “I really want you to get the vaccine, because then I can relax”.
Our education system will never succeed in shielding everyone from uncertainty. Nor should it try. This simply leaves young people to worry before, perhaps, telling an adult. Working through uncertainty with support is what builds resilience. Facing uncertainty alone rarely does.
A few schools embrace uncertainty. For example, the International Baccalaureate, delivered in some sixth forms, supports students to “approach uncertainty with forethought and determination”. Doing so can enable students to work with complexity and to live respectfully with others. After all, uncertainty is integral to most decisions in business, finance, politics and personal lives.
This makes dealing with uncertainty an educational imperative. Rather than being the enemy of wellbeing, uncertainty offers an opportunity to build inner strength.
This is a challenge for us all. But for young people in the maelstrom of peer pressure, testing, puberty and other challenges, it is far harder.
Perpetua Kirby and Rebecca Webb both contributed to this article.
Hope in the present
What do you save from your home when the cyclone comes and waters rise? How do you respond when, out of necessity, your parents work for a logging company that threatens global warming and the last remaining Brown-headed Spider monkeys on earth? These are the types of uncertainties faced by young people living in the Sundarbans delta of northeast India, and the lowland Chocó in the north of Ecuador. In a new research study, we are working with partners in these two regions, with Dr Anindita Saha and Dr Citlalli Morellos (Tesoro Escondido Reserve), to support young people to reflect deeply on how they experience and connect to their local sustainability issues.
In each region, researchers and artists are working with young people aged between 12 and 20 years old. Using creative and interactive activities — such as drawing, mapping and film-making — young people are encouraged to engage with a complex range of thoughts, feelings and opinions that they might have.
They can explore their experiences of sustainability through a range of different lenses, by:
The young people will be able to create artworks for themselves that suggest how they make sense of sustainability issues. They will exhibit their art locally. Those in the community will be invited to come along and look at, and talk about, the artworks with the young people who have produced them. There will be plenty of opportunities for discussion and deliberation. The purpose of this will be for everyone to consider any actions they may wish to take to address sustainability issues.
The interdisciplinary research team working on this project is trying to mirror the creative, deliberative approaches of the young people. This means that they are required to bring their different disciplinary knowledge together. Researchers from education, life sciences, environmental history and the arts will work, learn and challenge one another over the next few months in new and unfamiliar ways.*
Entitled Hope in the Present, the aim of the research is to find out whether using creative and deliberative approaches might shift young people’s sense of hope: through attending to what is worth preserving in their everyday lives and by identifying possibilities for taking action with others.
* The research team includes those at the University of Sussex: Dr Rebecca Webb and Dr Perpetua Kirby (Education and Social Work), Dr Mika Peck (Life Sciences), Prof. Vinita Damodaran (Environmental History), Zuky Serper (artist), Tiffany Yan Wong and Juno Zhou (Childhood and Youth, Masters students). The Indian team: Dr Anindita Saha (museum and curation studies), Biswajit Mahakur (educationist) and Khitish Bishal (artist). The Ecuador team: Dr Citlalli Morelos (life sciences), Paola Ponciano (educationist) and Kata Kárath (filmmaker). Advisers: Prof. Janet Boddy (Education and Social Work, University of Sussex); Prof. Ian Scoones (Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex), Prof. Paul Basu (anthropologiest; curator; film-maker; School of Oriental and African Studies, London).
The research is being funded by International Development Challenge Fund (IDCF) & Sussex Sustainability Research Programme (SSRP), financed by the University's Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) allocation.
The title, ‘hope in the present’, is borrowed from Naomi Hodgson, Joris Vlieghe and Piotr Zamojski’s Manifesto for a Post-Critical Pedagogy.
Perpetua Kirby & Rebecca Webb