The value of uncertainty

Written by Martina Lecky

Whilst our experiences during lockdown, including the current restrictions, will depend on our personal and professional circumstances, the one commonality we all share is how we have had to cope with uncertainty on both a daily and long-term basis.

As a natural scientist, I recall learning about Heisenburg’s Uncertainty Principle at university. Based on quantum mechanics, the Principle is that the position and momentum of a particle cannot both be determined with absolute precision; if we know the position, we cannot know precisely the momentum and vice versa. In layman’s terms, the lack of precision means that any determination would be an estimate and therefore conceptually the measurement would have a limit or an inherent uncertainty. The Principle helps us understand that our inability to determine something absolutely creates a boundary to our understanding, beyond which lies uncertainty.

At the core of Let’s Think (LT) lessons, the teacher facilitates cognitive activities in order that students experience cognitive conflict; this is when students’ current level of reasoning cannot accommodate a ‘somewhat surprising’ stimulus, which is often presented through a series of problem-solving tasks. Students work together to construct their reasoning in order to resolve the conflict, termed social construction, and teachers, as part of the metacognition stage, ask questions to elicit students’ responses such as how they solved the task, what made it difficult, how their thinking has changed etc. The metaphor of a jigsaw was used by Michael Shayer and Philip Adey, the cofounders of Cognitive Acceleration through Science Education (CASE), as part of the training materials for teachers in the early 1990s. Cognitive conflict was represented by a jigsaw puzzle; social construction involved peers working together to discuss and agree the strategy to resolve the puzzle; and metacognition promoted students’ conscious explanations of the strategy so it could be applied to other jigsaws.

During lockdown, I have reflected on LT lessons and the promotion of cognitive conflict which inherently creates uncertainty. The success of a lesson is not determined by the resolution of the conflict but rather that it has been experienced; therefore students’ cognitive development requires them to experience uncertainty. During my eight years as Headteacher of Ruislip High School, I have talked to the Year 7 students at the beginning of their secondary career about Let’s Think lessons, in particular the importance of welcoming the challenge in lessons and knowing that at the end of a LT lesson they may feel slightly confused. I believe LT lessons equip students with the firsthand experience that uncertainty is part of our lives; problems can be dealt with by working collaboratively; and our conscious reasoning helps us to make adaptations as and when necessary. Whilst this current multi-faceted jigsaw puzzle of the pandemic is unlikely to be resolved without a vaccine, our responsibility as educators is to prepare our students to deal with uncertainty as part of life and to know that the boundaries created by it are an opportunity for the next generation to explore beyond our current level of understanding for a new and brighter future.