Being-With-Uncertainty: Exploring Muddy Waters in Formal Education by Bec Sahr

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Being-With-Uncertainty: Exploring Muddy Waters in Formal Education
Ms. Bec Sahr, Faculty of Arts & Education, Deakin University, Australia



As we know,
There are known knowns.
There are things we know we know.
We also know
There are known unknowns.
That is to say
We know there are some things
We do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns,
The ones we don't know
We don't know.
- Hart Seely (2003)

I wonder if all human beings are constantly in waters of uncertainty – just with varying degrees of awareness and different (and even multiple) ways of relating to the unknown. Hart Seely’s (2003) found poetryconstructed from a 2002 speech by then US Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld – pays homage to the place of uncertainty in human life whilst seeking to anchor itself to a perception of certainty. Perhaps the most problematic – and hence interesting – of the poem’s stanzas is the first. I ponder at how Rumsfeld comes to his understanding of knowing. How teachers in Australia relate to the apparent knowns and unknowns within the education profession is of key concern in this investigation. This interest is informed by my background as a teacher with 10 years of collaborative practice, observations and reflexive thinking across a range of educational settings. These settings include a learning academy in South Korea, state secondary schools in the Northern Territory and Victoria, and a school for students with special needs (Prep – Year 10). I have also worked as an educational consultant, a facilitator in teacher professional learning, and more recently as a teacher-educator at a tertiary level, in conjunction with post-graduate research in education. This conceptual paper is an exploration of the place of uncertainty in the professional lives of school teachers. Documents that currently shape pedagogy in Australia (ACARA, 2010; AITSL, 2011; MCEETYA, 2008) are closely examined to elucidate how uncertainty is encountered and how reactive relationships towards uncertainty might be formed and perpetuated. With the increasing daily demands on teachers, explicitly proactive teacher engagements with uncertainty are few and far between. However, this growing counter-culture in education discourse provides a springboard into how a being-with-uncertainty approach in teacher-education might provide better role modelling to pre-service teachers, and go on to enhance their teacher response-ability (Ellsworth, 1997) and wellbeing in the workplace. Aqueous metaphors are used within this paper to create a hydrographic survey of the philosophical literature; charting how the term uncertainty is encountered and constructed within educational discourses, and alongside the broader socio-cultural milieu. Water as a metaphor also speaks to the notion of uncertainty as ubiquitous.

Uncertainty could be used interchangeably for water in this section of the eighth chapter from The Tao Te Ching (Lao-Tzu, 1989):

Water gives life to the ten thousand things and does not strive. It flows in places men reject and so is like the Tao.

By using metaphors we can do more than enliven concepts. Metaphor as an explicit methodological approach also allows both the author and reader the opportunity to re-imagine the area being explored (Loads, 2010; Dixon, 2005). I reflect upon Lao-Tzu’s second line above and note my stream of consciousness regarding fresh water as a precious resource, necessary for human survival, also its potential as a threat to the very lives it may otherwise nurture. I then also consider how water alone is not threatening, for example, village-swallowing tsunamis are triggered by earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, underwater explosions, glacial calving, or meteorite impacts. I think of how heightened wind pressures create a powerful swell which can seriously injure the novice beach swimmer when they are smashed to the sea bed by the force of a wave. As I begin to contemplate this kind of interconnectivity, I wonder what might be the metaphorical wind to uncertainty’s water within the realm of pedagogy and the discourse relating to teacher dispositions towards uncertainty.

My wanderings flow into multiple channels as I consider an element of the current national teacher-learner discourse. The Australian Curriculum prescribes three cross-curriculum priorities: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures, Asia and Australia’s engagement with Asia, and Sustainability (ACARA, 2010). It is envisaged that these vast and important areas of study will be integrated into classroom studies of English, mathematics, science, history and geography. I employ a selection of the cross-curricular priorities’ Organising Ideas (OIs) to explore diverse ways of relating to uncertainty. The OIs I have selected are outlined below (indented) as they appear on the Australian Curriculum website (ACARA, 2010). Following each group of OIs is an accompanying explanation to link each priority area to uncertainty.

Cross-curriculum priority 1: On Indigenous Australian connections to country and cultural ways

OI.2 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities maintain a special connection to and responsibility for Country/Place throughout all of Australia.

OI.5 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ ways of life are uniquely expressed through ways of being, knowing, thinking and doing. (ACARA, 2010) I note some parallels with a particular ontology towards uncertainty whilst listening to Murri woman and author Melissa Lucashenko (2011). She shares her observations on how different people relate to the Australian land differently. Lucashenko feels that non-Indigenous Australians are “fighting the land” rather than “honouring or being with it” as is the traditional Indigenous way. The latter shows respect for the land and what it provides, whereas fighting it through an attempt to dominate and protect a capital investment may run askew to nature’s way, creating other challenges. These notions of relating to land can be transferred towards perceptions of (or responses towards) uncertainty; fighting it through denial or avoidance, versus being with it and learning from it (Campbell, 2007).

Cross-curriculum priority 2: On Asian influence and Australian engagement with Asia

OI.3 The peoples and countries of Asia have contributed and continue to contribute to world history and human endeavour.

OI.5 Collaboration and engagement with the peoples of Asia support effective regional and global citizenship. (ACARA, 2010)

Delving into the stream of Buddhist philosophy reveals a loving acceptance of uncertainty. Ajahn Chah (2005) – a monastic teacher of the Theravada Buddhist tradition – states, “...uncertainty is itself the Buddha, because uncertainty is the Dharma, and the Dharma is the Buddha. But most people believe the Buddha and the Dharma to be something external to themselves” (p38). I look to Theravada Buddhism in particular as a means of creating an embankment to contain my further exploration of uncertainty. Today, Theravada Buddhism is largely practised in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar (Burma), and Bangladesh (BDEA, 2008).

Cross-curriculum priority 3: On Sustainability

OI.2 All life forms, including human life, are connected through ecosystems on which they depend for their wellbeing and survival.

OI.3 Sustainable patterns of living rely on the interdependence of healthy social, economic and ecological systems.

OI.6 The sustainability of ecological, social and economic systems is achieved through informed individual and community action that values local and global equity and fairness across generations into the future.

OI.7 Actions for a more sustainable future reflect values of care, respect and responsibility, and require us to explore and understand environments. (ACARA, 2010) The Organising Ideas (OIs) selected from Sustainability above encapsulate the key principles of both Buddhist philosophy and traditional Indigenous Australian philosophy (Sherwood, 2013; Chah, 2005; Neidjie, Davis and Fox, 1986). The final OI.7 above also reflects a social ethos that many educators argue is important to both understanding and practice in a classroom context (Britzman, 2013; Campbell, 2007; Cowhey, 2006; Ayers, 2001; Ellsworth, 1997, 1989). The notion of an ethical teacher practice is expanded upon in the next section where we look to Elizabeth Ellsworth’s (1996) work on teacher response-ability. Further, of the three cross-curriculum priorities surveyed above, I have chosen to focus on connections with Asia through Buddhist philosophy hereafter in order to contain the space. Uncertainty is an explicit central concept to both Buddhism and my exploration of teacher discourses.

Tidal Response-abilities: The ebb and flow of dialogue

Teacher response-ability (Ellsworth, 1996) is a professional’s ability to effectively respond to student needs. It is also a call to teachers to consciously engage with how they relate to pedagogical uncertainties. Sharing and probing such uncertainties – with students and colleagues – is a proactive way of co-exploring the unknowns (Campbell, 2007) or even re-examining the “known knowns” (Seely, 2003) that no longer feel right or just. Elizabeth Ellsworth (1996) – a North American academic – demonstrates the notion of being-with-uncertainty by proactively opening up the opportunities for dialogue with her students in order to better cater for their needs and to support their growth. Ellsworth asks students to write a paragraph accompanying their papers which instructs her as to how they want her to read their individual papers.

Ellsworth (1996) reports on how she comes to know and practise greater teacher response-ability. Her narrative includes the acknowledgement of earlier ignorance and keeps a space for unknowing in order to honour the capacity to learn more and to further respond to her students. Ellsworth demonstrates the attributes of the lifelong learner; she understands the constructive power of engaging with the problematic. In writing her paper, Situated Response-ability to Student Papers, as part of the dialogue with other educators, Ellsworth (1996) also honours a constructive collegiality, and reminds us of the ever-shifting nature of teaching and learning:

...right now I am thinking of this practice as part of my work as a teacher to use the reading of student papers in the continual struggle to become aware, that is, to situate my readings of student papers in their projects and questions – and from that place, to be able to respond as a teacher to those inaudible messages from students and from myself about our processes and projects in seminar. (p143)

She makes a refreshingly honest admission about how she has graded papers in the past – an untenable approach which she probed and explored with students to make way for greater possibilities. Ellsworth (1996) becomes mindfully engaged with the assessments (as culminative feedback) and asserts how “Each response to student papers has become a learning exercise” for her (p143). Ellsworth demonstrates the practical implications of the teacher as lifelong learner and role-model of this sustained approach to learning and being-with-uncertainty.

On a reflexive journey into uncertainty and teacher response-ability in the primary school classroom, Curt Dudley-Marling (1997) acknowledges that he, like Ellsworth (1996), writes from a position of privilege; having tenure at a university and the confidence that is derived from time and experience. A professor in education, Dudley-Marling (1997) does not claim to know all the answers and is critical of the media constructed ideal of the super-teacher. He also critically reflects on his own teaching approaches in his work with Grade 3 students. In the introduction to his book, Living with Uncertainty, Dudley-Marling (1997) ruminates that:

Teaching is a messy, complex, and uncertain business. My personal quest for certainty was informed by an enduring and largely unexamined faith in the role of experience and the possibility of certainty. I did not, as it turned out, learn much about teaching merely by experiencing it. I have had to reflect on that experience, but not just any kind of reflection has been worthwhile. What has been useful is a systemic, theoretically informed, deliberate reflection that acknowledges uncertainty, seeks improvement, but does not expect to attain the truth once and for all. (pxiii)

Through Dudley-Marling’s (1997) year-long action-research journey as a classroom teacher, he was able to focus on his students and reflect on the lessons that they, in-turn, provided him. By candidly sharing his exploration with other teachers, the discourse continues to evolve. However, research into feelings of uncertainty and vulnerability amongst graduate teachers (Helsing, 2007; Bullough & Young, 2002) has highlighted that challenges and the problematic are not readily disclosed or welcomed by many beginning teachers.

The Natural Water Cycle: Reflective and reflexive teacher-practice

The educational research literature which acknowledges uncertainty as a constructive necessity also illuminates the power of reflective writing (Dudley-Marling, 1997), collaborative reflections (Helsing, 2007) and reflective thinking (Dewey, 1960) in the development of teachers. John Dewey (1960) sees inferential inquiry as ongoing where “...one phase passes into the next which uses, tests and expands conclusions already obtained” (p186). Further, the real value of reflective knowledge is in its consequential action taken to improve one’s practice (Dudley-Marling, 1997; Dewey, 1960). It takes courage to know ourselves better, and to see – with reflexivity – what we are doing and how we could do things differently (Ellsworth, 1997; Ayers, 2001). North American educational philosopher, Maxine Greene (1995) writes of a journey of the imagination (or mind’s eye) to see, to reflect and to act:

Consciousness...is in part defined by the way it always reaches beyond itself toward a fullness and a completeness that can never be attained. If it were attained, there would be a stoppage, a petrification. There would be no need for a quest. If teaching can be thought of as an address to others’ consciousness, it may be a summons on the part of one incomplete person to other incomplete persons to reach for wholeness. (p26)

Greene’s insights here resonate with Buddhist philosophy. By embracing the act of teaching as both incomplete and imperfect – she transcends stagnant conventions of teaching and learning. Anicca (impermanence), dukkha (unsatisfactoriness / suffering), anatta (not-self) are the Theravada contemplations of existence (Chah, 2005). Acceptance of anicca and uncertainty are central to Ajahn Chah’s (2005) teachings:

Rather than becoming anxious about anything, we just look at the here and now Dharma and see uncertainty and impermanence. The Buddha Mind, the One Who Knows, comes to be. It is developed through this knowledge that all things are impermanent. (p39)

Ajahn Chah’s (2005) student and translator Paul Breiter (in Chah, 2005) notes how the venerable monk encouraged an acceptance of impermanence and uncertainty as a way of simplifying perceived complexities and letting go of attachments. Breiter (in Chah, 2005) explains how Ajahn Chah lived his teachings through his interactions with students, “In keeping with the spirit of change and uncertainty, surprises were always in store in the way he taught and the way he trained his students...he wasn’t easy to pin down or classify” (px). Looking to the Noble Eightfold Path as interpreted by Ajahn Jagaro (1988) tabled below left, I interpret the teacher-learner journey (below right) conscious of my incomplete, imperfect and ever-evolving understanding of my work as a teacher:

The Noble Eightfold Path

1. Right view
2. Right thoughts or aspirations
3. Right speech
4. Right Action
5. Right Livelihood
6. Right Effort
7. Right Mindfulness
8. Right Concentration

The Teacher-Learner Journey

1. We are all teachers-learners
2. Compassionate and reflexive thoughts
3. Mature & professional communications
4. Facilitate active student learning (Kohn)
5. Healthy role-modelling
6. Effort to always improve professionally
7. Being present with students (and their work)
8. Focus on all students and tasks

How teachers approach pedagogy and the uncertainties therein, is shaped by the individual’s orientations towards being and knowing. Further, Australia’s current education guidelines seek a particular teacher epistemology and ontology. The Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) released its National Professional Standards for Teachers in 2011 (ACARA). Drawing upon aspects of the national Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians (MCEECDYA, 2008), seven Standards frame the expectations of teacher knowledge and abilities. Descriptors are offered across four stages of the career continuum: Graduate, Proficient, Highly Accomplished and Lead. As explained in the preamble titled the “Organisation of the Standards” (AITSL, 2011), the breadth of knowledge expected of teachers is vast:

Teachers know their students well, including their diverse linguistic, cultural and religious backgrounds...Teachers know the content of their subjects and curriculum. They know and understand the fundamental concepts, structure and enquiry processes relevant to programs they teach. (AITSL, 2011, p4)

Whilst such high expectations are necessary, the Standards fail to acknowledge the teacher as learner alongside their students. Omissions – the silences in the discourse – are revealing. Teachers are directed to need only look to their colleagues for professional feedback, rather than the very students they are working with as much as 5 days a week, 40 weeks a year. I wonder why AITSL might overlook and hence devalue this significant stakeholder. Are our students untrustworthy and hence deemed incapable of constructive feedback? The absence of the student’s voice is problematic. It appears that an implicitly teacher-directed and passive approach to education is being promoted. Perhaps many of us teachers are too attached to a dated identity of being all-knowing (Dixon, 2008), and consequently hinder a truly collaborative dynamic with students.

To not-know, to be uncertain – are precursors to greater learning and inter-connecting with others (Campbell, 2007; Ellsworth, 1996; Greene, 1995). In fact, Elizabeth Campbell (2007) outlines a highly proactive way that teachers might choose to relate to uncertainty: By sharing and investigating the problematic with students. The quest for certainty denies the liminal space necessary for teachers to be in the process of knowing: Actively engaged in lifelong learning (Ellsworth, 1996; Dewey, 1960). Teaching-learning is a lifelong process. If a teacher becomes disinterested or stagnant in their work, they no longer teach mindfully, and their students sense this (Langer, 2011). Hamacheck (1999) argued, “Consciously we teach what we know; unconsciously we teach who we are” (p. 209). The teacher’s approaches to knowledge, vulnerability and uncertainty are observed by their students – whether absently absorbed or mindfully filtered.

Inviting Buddha into the Classroom

As an open-minded, egalitarian and peace-loving person, North American teacher Mary Cowhey (2006) approaches education in an organic manner, working with her students to facilitate innovative and meaningful learning opportunities. In her book, Black Ants and Buddhists (Cowhey, 2006) she successfully incorporates Buddhist philosophy into her Grade 1 classroom when introducing the concept of compassion (as a result of an earlier student-centred conversation which raised questions about hunger). Students soon eagerly engage in a community activity to help prepare Thanksgiving foods for a nearby shelter catering for the homeless and low-income earners. As students connect with the wider community they become aware of the ongoing needs of others, and “the Giving Tree drive” is born to ensure support throughout the year (p34). Cowhey’s reflection on this classroom experience is steeped in examples of proactively responding to uncertainty. Throughout their authentic experiences, her Grade 1 students also apply meaningful numeracy and literacy skills:

They worked hard...They were resourceful in their problem solving to overcome the challenges of weight, distance, and weather. They respectfully learned more about conditions of poverty in our own community. They collected and volunteered not out of pity, but out of understanding and empathy. They learned to transform their compassion into action (2006, p35).

Through her own experiences as a child and later as a single mother, Mary Cowhey (2006) learned what it is like to live in poverty. However, in another ethnically and religiously diverse classroom of Grade 2 students, she reaches beyond her admittedly limited sphere of theological knowledge to engage her students in a philosophical investigation. Its genesis is an initial ripple sent out when there is disagreement between two students in regards to a trail of black ants in the classroom. Whilst one student wants to crush the ants, the other pleads for their lives. Here begins a collective exploration into various perspectives on the value of life. Students are keenly engaged in learning more; asking classroom guests of the view they hold, further investigating, and proudly recounting their various findings (Cowhey, 2006).

Maxine Greene (1995) also advocates reaching beyond the known as an integral part of learning and evolving. She notes the wider uncertainties of this complex world with its unstable economies, rapid advances in technology and communication, and the ensuing institutional restructuring. Greene (1995) eloquently expresses the dilemma in the following way:

In response to school changes, many parents yearn not merely for the predictable but also for the assurances that used to accompany children’s mastery of the basics. Talk of tapping hitherto untapped possibilities and exploring unexplored alternatives serves to intensify the unease of those who want perhaps most of all to recover the simpler world of a time long past (p18).

Are teachers also yearning for the predictable? Approximately two decades on from the global context within which Greene was writing, and we continue to witness political instabilities, economic crises, and the fast evolution of ICT (Information Communication and Technology) in what can be dubbed a super-complex world (Loads, 2010).

As teachers throughout most of Australia begin to work on integrating the cross-curriculum priorities into the traditional stand-alone studies of English, mathematics, science, and history (ACARA, 2010) there arises unparalleled opportunities to learn from Buddhist perspectives of uncertainty to enhance our capacity, and that of our students, towards being-with-uncertainty. That is if the cross-curriculum priorities remain for some time longer. Whilst I appreciate the notion of anicca (and the irony is not lost on me here), Australian students may not have the opportunity to explicitly ponder such philosophical concepts from a Buddhist perspective afterall. Education Minister Christopher Pyne threatens to metaphorically dredge the delicate eco-system of education in Australia, calling for a conservative review of the yet fully implemented National Curriculum (Berg, 2014). And so it is…Anicca, dukkha, anatta.

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