Friday, January 31, 2014

Some Reflections on Uncertainty

So, it is Week 3 of 'Rhizomatic Learning' and the focus is embracing uncertainty. The questions posed are How do we make embrace uncertainty in learning? How do we keep people encouraged about learning if there is no finite achievable goal? How do we teach when there are no answers, but only more questions?

One of the many things that struck out from my first day back at school was the statement that, "a student's perception is their reality". The argument being made was that how you present yourself in the beginning has an effect on the rest of the year. This sort of thinking often leads to people donning a tie, graduate teachers trying to be sterner than they would like and teachers creating overly structured lessons all in the attempt to start the year off on the right foot.

The big problem with all of this is that we take such measures in the attempt to control everything around us. We presume that if we wear a tie, if we keep a few students in at lunchtime, if we develop some lessons where students are kept busy the whole time, that it will create the right perception, that school is about rules and power, with the teachers being their enforcer. However, what is overlooked in all of this is that it denies that the uncertainty involved in someone's perception. 

For example, a young female teacher who smiles a little too often happens to teach next to the rather strict and stern male teacher. This chance situation often leaves the young teacher being perceived as a pushover. Whereas, if that same teacher taught next to a similar such teacher to herself, then the perception of her would be totally different. Although we can do many things to influence how we are perceived, there are still many factors that are outside our grasp. The reality is that we cannot control someone else's perception and that is ok.

Associated with this effort to control perception is the effort to control learning. Seemingly dictated by the curriculum, it is so easy to structure learning for students, rather than with students. As +Richard Olsen pointed out on Twitter, "it is not commonly understood that curriculum is a compromise." A part of this 'compromise' is actually opening learning up to students, not simply 'compromising' as teachers. Sadly, a part of this compromise often leads to teachers sticking to areas where they feel comfortable - working to their strengths you may say - rather than opening learning up to the students. Even though so many claim to be life-long learners, this is too often merely lip service, rather than embraced. Classrooms are proclaimed to be student centred, however class agreements are often created as a token gesture, only to be never seen again.

This all reminds me of a post from +George Couros the other about everything happening for a reason. Couros talks about how he was feeling unhappy in his career, so he decided to change his mindset by wearing a tie to school. What was significant about George's change was that it was not about changing others, rather it was about changing himself. So often we try to lock down and control the world around us in the classroom, when the only thing that we can truly change and control is ourselves.

This year I have entered the classroom with a new vigour. Instead of starting with my curriculum fully planned, I have opened it up to the students. Although I had an idea of what we could do, it was only as a starting point to be refined by the contributions of the students. So instead of beginning the first lesson outlining what students will learn, I began the question, 'what do you want out of this subject?' After that I provided an outline of the areas that students would be assessed against and a suggestion of what I thought that we could do. After reflecting on the responses from the students and opening it up to the class, we then created an overview of the units of study of the semester. I must admit that one of the benefits that I have this year is that I am the only teacher of my subjects, therefore my class and I do not have fit in with somebody else. However, why is it that the need to 'fit in' means that differentiation is so often subdued.

I am not particularly sure that I have really addressed the questions at the beginning, but I would like to think that I have at least touched upon the heart of the problem, that how we deal with uncertainty often starts with the foundation for learning which we put in place in the classroom. That is the only reality worth talking about.