Estimated reading time: 6 minutes, 15 seconds

Reflecting Allowed

What My Toddler Teaches Me About Uncertainty

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes, 15 seconds

I’ve been thinking about this post all day, and reading other people’s blogs has helped me clarify my ideas further.

It all started with Cathy Davidson’s video in the MOOC where she interviews ppl about their fave teachers and one person says “my daughter” which is, i suspect, supposed to be a surprise. Funny enough, though, her daughter is actually really a “teacher” so it’s a bit less surprising.

But I wanted to say here how my toddler teaches me something new every day. I wrote earlier about parenting being the most common way people embrace uncertainty, but I forgot to note how children are sort of thrown into uncertainty from birth! Suddenly, they are no longer in the safe environment of the womb, constant conditions, automatic refills, you know the drill! Then suddenly they need to communicate with a world that does not understand their language and discover that they will need to adapt to the world’s language! No need to drill this in too deep… You get the picture.

So I was thinking about how the world must look from my toddler’s viewpoint. Routine seems to be really important to kids this age. But it made me realize how the routine is some sort of imposed structure she creates (or we create for her) that gives her some stability in the midst of all the chaos. For example, if i give my kid two foods together a few days in a row, she makes a connection between them (for a while, orange juice reminded her of smoke salmon). If we do something in a particular order, she gets used to it (e.g. There is a certain location where she likes to sit and drink her milk). These are all arbitrary connections that she makes, but they help make the world a more certain place for her.

Then there are the connections to people. At first children are connected to their moms, the only familiar, certain being outside themselves, and as they get older they expand that circle of people they trust and depend upon as they navigate uncertainty.

Kids are really open to uncertainty, though, in ways I don’t think we recognize as such. For example, there is no clear reason why a child would realize that the letters b, d, and p (in lower case) are different from each other. After all, a triangle is a triangle, no matter how you look at it, upside down, right to left, etc. So b,p,d – they are all the same shape. This has nothing to do with uncertainty per se, but it shows how kids don’t yet have that imposed structure that alphabet letters need to be read from a certain angle. They are open to possibilities.

Another example is play. Give a child anything and they will find something interesting to do with it. They are uncertain of its function, and so they experiment with it, taking risks, and they make up their own creative function(s) for it. Imagine doing things like this in your classroom. Giving students a foreign tool and asking them to make use of it creatively. I’m sure someone has done it. I am teaching a module on educational games for sustainability soon and I imagine I could try something like that in class – or bring ordinary items and ask them to do extraordinary things with them. Better yet, ask them to bring items from home and use them in the class (incidentally, I loved Frances’ sharing her lesson plan on her blog – it always helps to see concrete ways others have taught certain concepts in their own classes).

Strangely, serendipitously, the #moocmooc chat a few days ago about #FutureEd discussed the topic of chaos in online learning, a topic I find similar to that of uncertainty (though not exactly the same).

In Karen Young’s blog (thanks To Dave for point it out, as I don’t think she posts on the fb group) she asks a question that i had not yet formed completely or articulated. She says

When we teach in the elementary panel, we are encouraged to create a place of safety for the learner. Isn’t that in conflict with the idea of embracing uncertainty? For life and sometimes learning are not safe.

I would like to make a connection between her idea and an idea that came up during the #moocmooc chat. We were discussing how to deal with trolls, bullies,etc online, and one of the ideas was to create a supportive community that would support people against these threats. Rather than just police, facilitate, or set rules, creating a community (which would take time) is the best defense (we also discussed embracing vulnerability, which I think is related to openness and trust as well and relevant to the issue of kids as well).

It occurred to me that this is possibly the only approach that solves the riddle Karen posed, and I re-phrase it here as i see it: if life is uncertain, why are we trying to create safe environments for learning? So my point is: if those environments are made safer by sustainable and transferable ways (such as creating community, difficult and time-consuming though this may be), that’s a good thing, because they can adapt that process outside class. But if they are made safe by artificially-imposed conditions like teacher control, rules, etc., then we are contradicting ourselves and limiting their learning.

It is the same for kids, I believe. As a parent, you want to equip them to handle things on their own in future, handle uncertainty, become independent. To do so, you might be better off helping them learn how to make their own environment more safe (building community) than by making it safe for them. Creating their own conditions, asking their own questions.

In a slightly similar vein, I recently read a book about Cultivating Inquiry-Driven Learners where the authors point to the importance of cultivating inquiry in college education in order to prepare learners for the increasingly uncertain world. This seems like an obvious point, but it brings me to another point raised in Karen’s blog:

“Should we only teach the concrete, for only that is true and all else, fleeting and ephemeral”

And my response (copy/paste from my comment on her blog) to that was..

“… about whether we should teach only the concrete..because all else is fleeting and ephemeral. This question assumes the important thing we are teaching is content, when i think the important thing we should be teaching is how-to-learn, and even that is not a fixed process…”

(Back to parenting,though, this is a great one from Dave on explaining rhizomatic learning to a 5-year-old and again here it sounds like he is promoting inquiry-driven learning and acceptance of uncertainty to his young child – so not something that needs to wait til college!)

Now, one more thing. I also like the point mentioned across the blogs of Jolly and Maureen about our role being to help learners find their own “inner compass” and follow it.

So, um, to end this post of very scattered thoughts, i’ll just share an idea that developed for me through the hangout, reading lots of blogs today, and the facebook discussions about uncertainty of the purpose of the universe, and Jenny’s latest post:

“That certainty, when it exists, is temporal and contextual, unlikely to be universal.”

(copying my own words from my comment on Karen’s blog).

5 thoughts on “What My Toddler Teaches Me About Uncertainty

  1. of course — not be excessively Freudian “birth trauma” about it but life starts with being thrown (ejected) into uncertainty. Both play and routine building are uncertainty coping mechanisms.

  2. Hey Maha, I’ve been so intrigued by this connection between parenting and rhizomatic learning too – so much seems to align – especially the bits about supporting independence, modelling (rather than telling – or shouting!) the behaviours you want them to demonstrate, letting go, encouraging inquiry, exploration, curiosity and play. Providing an appropriate balance of structure / support and room for independent thought and exploration. It’s a delicate balance, and I think often dependent on context – on reading the situation, knowing your child, knowing when they need your support (and how to support them appropriately) vs when to just step away and let them do it on their own. And it’s fluid and constantly changing too, as they grow (and they grow so fast don’t they?!) you need to adjust your approach. There’s no doubt it’s the most challenging (and rewarding!) job you’ll ever have.
    I’ve been actively reflecting A LOT on my parenting during the last few weeks, being a lot more mindful of my actions and how it impacts my child’s behaviour, and adjusting my approach.

    I’ve been thinking a lot also on your posts on vulnerability – how important showing vulnerability (both teacher/parent and student/child) is for inviting/encouraging participation / independence, and establishing trust – and fostering community. Really fascinating to explore.

    And play. I’ve been really interested in play and playful learning, creating and making might help support wider participation (e.g. by providing alternative forms to communicate, express and make sense of complexity), but was also thinking out loud on Maureen Maher’s post ( which you link to above), about whether in fact play might also make it ‘safer’ to show vulnerability, as expressing something deeply emotional via art, music, poetry etc might be easier / ‘safer’ than talking or writing about it directly. I don’t know….I sense there’s a link there somewhere!

    Just like you say that you’ve written a post of scattered thoughts…but really they are connected, just in ways that you don’t explicitly realise yet. So much of this experience has been in finding pieces of a very complex puzzle, and starting to find the bits that seem to fit together….

  3. I also think it’s interesting how we try to create words of stability and regularity for our children, but they create so much uncertainty and instability in our lives as academic mothers. I think having young children forces us to train our minds to be constantly flexible, so we can toggle between “Mommy, Mommy, watch this!” or cleaning up spilled juice to grading papers and processing our academic work.

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