Saturday 1 February 2014

Faith, hope and uncertainty

This week’s #rhizo14 theme is ‘uncertainty’, and I’ve been reading some great blogs by @danceswithcloud, @bali_maha and others that have really inspired me to think more deeply about this.  It is wonderful to see synergy and parallels in our thinking – creativity in education, and how children inspire and teach us are becoming common themes.

People seem to talk a lot about uncertainty these days.  A trend for ‘un’ things – ‘unconferences’, ‘unhangouts’ – seems to indicate that we are embracing disruption and unpredictability a little more in our teaching, although there will always be, inevitably, some kind of structure to these things (freedom needs boundaries, as @lounorthern would say).

My youngest daughter Holly is certain about everything.  Last week she went to a birthday party, and spent the preceeding two weeks talking about nothing else.  She woke up on the morning of the big day and declared that ‘This is going to be the most fantastic party ever!’  (I had a massive sense of anti-climax – surely she was bound to lose pass the parcel, or the sandwiches would taste horrible?)  When I picked her up afterwards I asked if it was as great as she’d hoped. ‘Mum, it was the most fantastic party ever!’ she said.  There’s the power of hope for you.

Personally, I have a paradoxical relationship with uncertainty.  The control freak part of me craves routine, predictability and reassurance in life (this was the mother who loved the Gina Ford 4-hour feeding routines and tried them with both her babies, despite the fact neither child ever really got the hang of it. Babies eh!)  But there is another part of me that loves to take risks and hurl myself into the unknown.  Walking away from a fairly secure and well-paid job to try a new challenge is a recent example of this. And actually, a close look at my CV would show that it isn’t the first time I’ve done it, either.

My teaching reflects this paradox, too. I love to plan and be prepared; my worst nightmare (and I have it often) is of walking into a classroom with no idea what I’m going to do that day.  But conversely, two of my favourite teaching practices are actually grounded in uncertainty. Nancy Kline’s ‘Thinking Environment’ approach invites people to think for themselves; a coaching session always opens with ‘What are you thinking, and what are your thoughts?’  There is no greater leap into the unknown than to ask a person that question!  In a similar vein, teaching via philosophical inquiry requires the facilitator to completely let go.  In community philosophy, groups of learners will look at a relevant stimulus (which could be an object, a film, a picture – or even go on a visit) and come up with their own questions.  This can take the lesson in very unexpected directions.  For example, I recently brought in a beautiful picture of two paths diverging in a wood, that I’d found on the internet.  My thinking was that the questions and concepts raised would concern ideas and themes of belonging, choice, identity – possibly even making connections to Robert Frost’s famous poem.  As it turned out, however, the group started to wonder whether the picture was genuine, so the questions were actually more to do with manipulation of images on the internet, and the concept of authenticity. It reminded me that, while you can have a session plan in Community Philosophy, you shouldn’t attempt to fill in the details.  That has to be up to the philosophers.

In teaching, tapping into natural curiosity can be great way to embrace uncertainty. A couple of weeks ago, I was teaching a colleague how to use Yammer, the social networking site that we use at college where we teach.  She had lots of questions about the system, most of which I didn’t know the answer to.  My response was to say ‘I’m not sure, but why don’t you try this/click here/see what this does’.  As teachers, we don’t have to always be the experts.  And by exploring the system and trying things out for herself, my colleague was more likely to remember it anyway.  All I was actually doing was giving her attention and reassurance – sitting by her, through her uncertainty.  Project-based and expeditionary learning requires teaching that accompanies and encourages curiosity, rather than directing it, too. 

The counterpoints to uncertainty to me then, are faith and hope.  Firstly, faith in the processes we choose, and the capacity of people to work within them.  Whether it’s faith in a coaching framework, an outline session plan (with room for tweaks), or simply a belief in the power of community-based, rhizomatic learning, our faith will encourage our learners to embrace uncertainty and start their own journeys.  It is also about the ‘leap of faith’ that we take when we try something new; always hoping that things will work out ok in the end, or that if they don’t, at least we have given it a go. 

A very dear friend once said that what she most appreciated about me was my ‘irrepressible spirit of hope’.  I’ve never forgotten that.  I ‘hope’ I will always have it.

“Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul – and sings the tunes without the words – and never stops at all.”

Emily Dickinson

1 comment:

  1. Hi Kay, in the role of the official Rizo14 Grumpy dwarf: can we anticipate uncertainty from environments that are deliberately designed? I'm thinking of the controlled environments that are features of deliberate design. As an unfinished thought - anticipation is a feature of prediction or an allowance for divergence which normalizes it?

    I'm thinking of the reality that resides outside a formal and structured dialog where we need to call on tools we are uncertain of. My example would be our local government is kind of dumbfounded by the rate of growth in our area and don't seem to be able to cope. How do we work with the unknown without reverting to a comfort zone that is populated with solutions for different problems? Wouldn't that cheat the unknown of its potential to teach us new things?

    Liked the blog, it triggered new ideas.