The world is uncertain, and an education that suggests otherwise does not equip students for the future. More than that, an unquestioning belief in certainty is potentially dangerous to freedom and democracy. These are two of the key messages that were discussed at the December launch of TRANSFORM-iN EDUCATION, hosted by the Centre for Teaching and Learning (CTLR) and the Centre for Innovation and Research in Childhood and Youth (CIRCY) at the University of Sussex. We are busy planning how to build on the ideas and enthusiasm expressed at the event to form future collaborations, and integrating emerging thinking into new teaching and research. All exciting stuff, though BREXIT rumbling on is a reminder that some of the certainties we currently rely on to enable our encounters with the unknown could themselves be going to shift in 2019.
At the launch, Professor Saul Becker, the Provost at the University of Sussex, warned of the danger of certainty to freedom and democracy. He suggested that this takes away people’s doubts – including those in politics and education – so that they become too sure about themselves without evidence to support their views. He called upon universities to be ‘celebrations of uncertainty’ that embrace multiple ideas and possibilities: ‘the real joy of learning is in the transformative power of uncertainty, and learning and being willing to change your mind’. A spirit of transformation, creativity and disruptiveness lies at the heart of the university’s new strategic framework.
Mariam Ahmed Toor, a post-graduate Masters in Education student gave a personal perspective. The bubble of certainty began ‘to crack’ after her undergraduate years ‘as we are on the edge of being poured into real life’. At school, she said, ‘we were never taught what uncertainty feels like . . . we were working towards something certain with right answers’. Mariam explained that uncertainty had never been modelled for her within the classroom either as a pedagogy or as an approach to life. She feels unprepared for adult life: ‘I was told that the 20s are the best time of your life . . . But contrary to this, my peers and I are anything but lively or happy. We are instead, in a state of anxiety and depression, drowning in existential crises, looking desperately for answers but finding none’.
The event centred on how we might integrate not knowing into the classroom. We outlined a model of transformative education (that will be detailed in a future blog) suggesting this is important in order to know differently through sharing opinions and raising questions and not needing ‘to know’ too quickly, narrowly or definitively; to do things differently by asking how we might respond thoughtfully and insightfully when we are uncertain; and to be different, exploring who we are when we are less certain and can assert ourselves in unique ways without censure. Marcelo Staricoff, former head-teacher and scientist, and current educational consultant, shared his enthusiasm, insights and range of his own educational resources – The Joy of Not Knowing - that champion enquiry and finding out as part of a school curriculum.
A highlight of the event was the time given over to attending teachers (from early years through to higher education), researchers, students, governors and parents, who explored their own ideas of conformity, uncertainty and transformation. Conformity came across as negatively associated with compliance, constraint, and the maintenance of a status quo. Crucially, however, it was also expressed as important for ensuring familiarity and security and as a springboard for some into transformational ways of knowing. Uncertainty was positioned by many as (necessarily) destabilising and uncomfortable, requiring institutional support that provided legitimacy for associated feelings of doubt, fear, anxiety, as well as excitement. Transformation was conceived of positively, as connected with new possibilities for being and becoming something changed; stepping beyond a threshold; associated with asking ‘dangerous questions’; enabling growth into something different; and questioning and imagining different possibilities.
Participants wrote a postcard to themselves about something they might do to promote some aspect of uncertainty in their everyday life or work. Some responses were practical, such as encouraging the language of uncertainty in the classroom, allowing students to direct the outcome of particular activities, giving them more time to explore their ideas, and listening more attentively to what they are interested in finding out. Others felt they could question themselves: asking why they did things a certain way; actively finding out more about ‘transforming’; and sharing ideas of being uncertain with others to build a critical mass. Some took a more philosophical line to look for small ‘cracks’ or opportunities in the day when it might be possible to allow some uncertainty to seep in. Others wrote of embracing uncertainty as ethically humane; that they would share their doubts about not being good or certain enough; and, that they would try to practice being more uncertain (embracing its consequences as exciting rather than as daunting or even as failure). One participant queried whether, as agentic adults, we have more power than we often acknowledge for doing things differently.
As we enter 2019, we remain resolute to find the means and moments for doing things differently in schools. On a personal level, as with every other year, we also want to do more exercise; perhaps here too, we might recognise how moments of openness and freedom can be transformative:
'A runner’s every step is a leap, so that for a moment he or she is entirely off the ground . . . For my friends who run long distances, these tiny fragments of levitation add up to something considerable; by their own power they hover above the earth for many minutes, perhaps some significant portion of an hour or perhaps far more for the hundred-mile races. We fly; we dream in darkness; we devour the heaven in bites too small to be measured.' (Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, p.175-6)
Listen to a December interview on BBC Radio Sussex: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/p06rmy31