‘I don’t know’, was my initial response to the first question following my presentation at the recent British Educational Research Association (BERA) conference. I had been talking about my doctoral research highlighting Year One children’s anxiety when they do not-know expected answers. Children must deal alone with their ‘emergency’ feelings, with schools instead stressing they be Resilient and Aim High. Such character education can encourage children to try harder but it can also be felt as a pressure. It demands children concentrate for long periods and constantly challenge themselves; they become responsible for their successes but also their failures. Five year old Amelie tells me resilience means ‘learning hard. . . trying again, again and again’. Staff are also expected to be resilient to meet changing government demands, but similarly feel the pressure that they are not doing their ‘best’ for the children. Male and middle class children are those most often rewarded and encouraged for their resilience and for aiming high, which serves to reinforce existing hierarchies rather than challenge structural barriers to education. Frances Howard identified something similar in her conference presentation on the Young People’s Arts Award. Working class or ‘dis-engaged’ young people are more likely to receive a didactic and tightly controlled model of teaching, what she calls a ‘pedagogy of poverty’, compared with the ‘pedagogy of possibilities’ available to other young people that includes real life engagement and open-ended tasks offering the affordances of being like an artist. The latter offers a vision of an education that is broader than resiliently adapting to existing conditions. It offers the possibility to challenge accepted wisdom and the taken-for-granted so that students might become something different as well as contribute to a more just society. It is a vision taken up by Paul Miller, in his keynote speech, in which he sounded the pressing need to tackle racism in educational leadership, with the call to move from ‘conformity, to conviction to change’.
The dominant classroom emphasis on learning what has been tightly defined, limits opportunities to move into areas where the answer is uncertain and open to different interpretations and possibilities. Becoming a doctoral student, I realise my previous education had not prepared me well for not-knowing, so that I feel my vulnerability when not-knowing the meaning of difficult academic papers, not-knowing what to make of my classroom observations and interviews, not-knowing how to consolidate a mass of research data into a thesis that contributes something of value. Slowly I begin to allow doubt and uncertainty to exist, so that I no longer aim to know too quickly or narrowly when deciding how to respond at each stage of the research. This is more about patience than perseverance or resilience; I take more time to meander in the classroom and my analysis. I began to shift from wanting to grasp the meaning of everything I read to experiencing the thrill of seeing how I might use a text to help me think more deeply about my own work. Tara Westover writes about such a shift in her recent memoir, Educated, in which she eloquently and disturbingly traces her upbringing in a fundamentalist Mormon family in the United States, one including physical abuse and neglect, and her move from being mostly self-educated at home to achieving a doctorate at the University of Cambridge. She discusses how at first her approach to reading Mormon texts was ‘to learn what to think, not how to think for myself’, and how she begins ‘to read books differently, without giving myself over to either fear or adoration’. There is a pivotal moment in the book, when Westover tentatively questions her brother’s assertion that she is responsible for her repeated abuse; writing in her diary she asks, ‘Could he not tell he was hurting me? I don’t know. I don’t know’. This moment of doubt signals the possibility for what Westover suggests some might call her ‘transformation’, but what she calls ‘an education’: ‘Not knowing for certain, but refusing to give way to those who claim certainty, was a privilege I had never allowed myself. My life was narrated for me by others. Their voices were forceful, emphatic, absolute. It had never occurred to me that my voice might be as strong as theirs’.
The woman who asked me the question at BERA, a teacher educator, wanted to know what could be done to stop teachers putting stress onto children, adding that her own child had begun pulling out his hair a week before entering Year Six. She identifies an important challenge. Teacher performance has always been entangled with that of their students, but is felt acutely under the demanding accountability framework including the publication of SAT results, school league tables and Ofsted inspections. Addressing issues such as these requires on-going supportive discussions between policy makers, educators, parents and children, as well as researchers. My paper provided no definitive answers; it narrates important aspects of contemporary Year One classroom life that invites others to see what they might make of it.
I always get the same visceral queasiness at this time of year, something between excitement, expectation and terror for all that lies ahead…I’ve metaphorically sharpened the pencils and honed reading lists, course outlines, learning objectives and dotted some ‘I’s and crossed some ‘T’s of sessions I must teach. I go through the same steps as I did last year (and the year before, and before, before, before) of purchasing a hefty paper diary and filling it in, despite so much of my calendar being, necessarily, online. I’m a little shamed by the pleasure I take in completing my details and marking commitments, despite this being clear duplication and apparent ‘time-wasting’. It is all part of my disciplined ritual for holding onto some sense of who I am (pretty much the same as last year…bit more frayed around the edges…) and my ‘worth’ as set out in terms of what is required of me and what I have signed up to deliver in my role as education lecturer. So, there are some things that appear as – de facto – certain, in the months that lie ahead. And yet, this is illusory. Of course, I have no plans for changing my name, or disguising my date of birth, but beyond that, pretty much everything inscribed on the currently pristine pages may adapt, reconfigure, reposition or fall by the wayside, so that those, oh so certain, commitments may be rubbed or scrubbed away.
Despite my need to control, Perpetua and I have become excited by allowing ourselves the possibilities of embracing wholeheartedly the merits of being ‘uncertain’. That is one of the motivations for our setting up of this website. We want to make it a platform for engaging with those of you for whom this ignites some excitement and interest (even allowing for it to also challenge the apparent certainty of our uncertainty!) Being uncertain, is a not a command to be less organized, or to know less or ‘nothing’, but rather it is a rallying cry to consider differently (and more humbly) the possibilities of what might be produced when we allow ourselves to venture into a terrain of ‘not knowing’ (so certainly) in aspects of our daily rituals and our practices and pedagogies. I have recently read the introduction to a prose sort of poem about the First World War (published in 1937), entitled, ‘In Parenthesis’ in which the author tells his readers about the title: ‘I have written it in a kind of space between – I don’t know between quite what…the war was a kind of parenthesis…and also our curious type of existence here is altogether in parenthesis’ We hope this blog space gives you permission to explore the in-between of similar productive uncertainty and experience it as emotionally and intellectually engaging, affecting, curiosity-inducing, dynamic and enjoyable.
Fostering a sensibility towards uncertainty has been necessary for both Perpetua and I as we have written our ethnographic research about schools and aspects of schooling over the last few years. This has become especially important to us as we have tried to capture our research in words on the page in ways that do justice to what we have noticed. We have had to will ourselves to remain open to ‘troubling’ things that may hold the illusory quality of seeming ’bleeding obvious’ (to us and to others) in some ways, in order to hear and engage with different ways of seeing things, and alternative versions of making sense of things to produce richness, depth, and contingency in what we have to say about our research experiences. This is our way of contributing to ongoing ‘research conversations’ in our educational fields of study.
Our research has given us the privilege of being with, and participating in lives of, children and adults in very hardworking schools where pupils, teachers, administrators, parents/carers navigate the complex, multi-faceted and the demanding space of school where they are asked to conform in their garnering of garbs of assuredness. These garbs are alluring. They suggests that – as long as we all try hard enough – we can all be taught to know what it is we ought to know to, in order to not need to be uncertain and to be controllers of our destinies and to do things ‘right’ now and in the future. We live in a period of the supremacy of the ‘knowledge curriculum’ and of ‘mastery’ of aspects of the curriculum (for teachers and children especially) as proof of individual and collective worth and of the point of going to school and becoming educated. So much of the knowledge curriculum and of mastery is enabling (we gain necessary qualifications), encouraging (we get praised for getting things correct), comforting (we know what to expect), and testament to the subject knowledge and skill of teachers and pupils alike. But it is not all that can or, indeed, should, be known in school. There can – and should be – space for the parenthesis. It is this possibility that we want to explore through this website by engaging with readers and contributors in different ways.
Finally, in my looking forward to a new academic year, I want to cast a glance back to the football World Cup in June and the excitements generated by the unexpected success of the English football team. In a Radio 4 interview with a sports educator, Matthew Syed, was asked about why the team seemed to be doing so well and playing with a renewed sense of self-belief. Matthew Syed noted: ‘The sort of dominant model in football is to position the manager as the boss and the players as like mute labourers who unthinkingly carry out his instructions. But I think the problem with that, and we saw it against Iceland a couple of years ago, when something unexpected happens, the opposition score, the players panic and they’re looking to the bench for new instructions….’
So I won’t be ditching my paper diary (yet). It holds reminders within it of things I need to know and that will be highly detrimental to me and others if I forget. I like both the comfort of conforming and following instructions like the ‘mute labourer’ described by Syed, (and also of the possibility of controlling things and giving instructions). However, I know, too, that I must rub things out and re-work things, and embrace uncertainty to challenge only forever being the ‘mute labourer’ who follows instructions and nothing else. This applies in everyday matters and in aspects of my ‘knowing’, and in my practice and pedagogy as a teacher and researcher, because – as Éamonn Dunne & Michael O’Rourke suggest - in their work on ‘The Pedagogics of Unlearning’, ‘if the system is too tight, too ordered, nothing new can happen’. As researchers and educators, we are all concerned with generating the possibility of new things happening both now and in the future for children and those who teach and guide them. Let’s embrace the possibilities of uncertainty in this academic year.
 David Jones wrote this ‘war poem’ in 1937 and it was published in 2014 by Faber and Faber
 Ethnographic research is research that means that the researcher is immersed in a place or environment for a long period of time in order to gain a myriad of insights into what might be going on
 Dunne, E., and M O’ Rourke. 2014. “A Pedagogics of Unlearning.” In The Para-academic Handbook, edited by A. Wardrop and D. Withers, 61–70. Bristol: HammerOn Press.