Teachers go to great lengths to clearly define the problems our students will solve, how they should solve them, and what the outcomes should be. Although students can and do learn from highly planned tasks, there are serious drawbacks from relying too much on these kinds of learning experiences.
Students also need opportunities to productively engage with uncertainty. As I discuss in my article in the October 2017 Educational Leadership (Inviting Uncertainty into the Classroom), we can unleash students’ problem solving by removing some of the pre-determined features of learning experiences and replacing them with “to-be-determined” features—chances for students to make some of their own choices and try their own methods. Doing so requires a few shifts in our thoughts and actions, including:
· Embracing (rather than avoiding) uncertainty. Real problems involve uncertainty. If you already know how to get from A to Z, you don’t have a problem. Although uncertainty is uncomfortable, it is also a catalyst for problem solving. Students therefore need opportunities to learn how to productively resolve uncertainty in the context of an otherwise supportive learning environment;
· Engaging in lesson unplanning. Lesson unplanning involves introducing uncertainty into existing learning experiences by removing some of the pre-determined features. This makes room for students to identify different ways of solving existing problems, find their own problems to solve, and develop their own solutions to those problems. For instance, instead of asking students to solve a designated math problem with a procedure you dictate, why not require them to solve the problem using as many different procedures as they can?
· Taking beautiful risks. When we take the beautiful risk of welcoming uncertainty into our classrooms, we remove some of the comfort of more routine lessons and activities. This cost in comfort, however, comes with the benefit of providing our students (and ourselves) with opportunities to unleash problem solving in and beyond the classroom.
Striking a better balance between over-planned learning experiences and those that involve uncertainty requires a highly structured and instructionally supportive learning environment. It also requires our own willingness to engage with uncertainty. How can we expect our students to take beautiful risks if we aren’t willing to do so ourselves?
Ronald A. Beghetto (Ronald.firstname.lastname@example.org; www.ronald.beghetto.com) is Professor of Educational Psychology in the Neag School of Education and Director of Innovation House at the University of Connecticut in Storrs. Follow him on Twitter @ronbeghetto.