Estimated reading time: 7 minutes, 25 seconds

Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

The Unweek of Uncertainty & Unlearning


Estimated reading time: 7 minutes, 25 seconds

I tweeted this earlier today:

This is the unweek of unMOOCS, with uncertainty theme in #rhizo14 & unlearning theme of #futureEd. I am unworking unhard in all of it

I say all of this jokingly, but also in seriousness, both at once (yes, very postmodern of me hehe). “Unweek” because I believe these are the topics of my life, not this week. Our entire lives nowadays are uncertain, we live in postmodern times (or if you dislike the term, you can use Ron Barnett’s age of supercomplexity) where truths are not certain anymore. You could argue (as Barnett does often enough) that embracing uncertainty is the highest level of intellectual development or critical thinking. This is not the same as relativism in the way William Perry describes intellectual development (where contextual relativism is an advanced stage but not the highest). Embracing uncertainty seems to me to fit with postmodern paradigms of seeing the world (think quantum mechanics). As dynamic, but also as indefinable. Richardson uses a beautiful metaphor of “crystallization” when describing research, as opposed to “triangulation” which was traditionally used. “Crystallization” is about recognizing the partiality of our views of anything, the multiple possibilities that different angles illuminate, the infinite possible patterns that can occur from looking at a crystal in different ways. It is a great way of describing the postmodern view/condition. It reminds me of the title of Cathy Davidson’s book “Now You See It”. Haven’t read the book yet, but I assume this is a play on the saying “now you see it, now you don’t” which is the case when you change angles looking at a crystal, right? As Dave Cormier’s intro video says, it is about embracing the uncertainty: uncertainty of not having one correct or even multiple finite answers, of not even necessarily being certain of our learning goals or the outcomes possible, but embracing this uncertainty. To me, this opens us up to serendipity in learning: when you keep a part of you “open” you allow yourself to learn unprecedented things, talk with people you may never have approached before, etc.

The same applies to “unlearning”… I think it is the order of our times, not just a topic of the week. The quote Cathy Davidson uses in #FutureEd is the very popular:

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn. ” ― Alvin Toffler.

Both #rhizo14 and #FutureEd are sort of unMOOCs to me, not only because their facilitators claim them to be something else, but because to me they are opportunities to build long-term relationships by engaging with people about important and deep educational ideas. They are more than just MOOCs to me, and That is why I am investing so much in them both. I started engaging with both the facilitators and their previous publications ahead of the courses as well (that, btw, fits with Shaimaa Otify’s comment on promotion/marketing of professional development experiences in my blog post here)

Thinking about this week’s MOOC ideas made me realize that I have unlearned a lot (will blog parts of my assignment for #FutureEd later, or maybe i will reflect on other things i have unlearned over time), but for now, I will reflect briefly about Dave’s prompt for this week of #rhizo14:

How do we make embrace uncertainty in learning? How do we keep people encouraged about learning if there is no finite achievable goal? How do we teach when there are no answers, but only more questions?


The reason I embrace uncertainty is because I think that is the way things are (I am certain of uncertainty). I embrace it in my research and work and teaching, even though it can be frustrating, but I deeply believe in it. But how do I keep others encouraged to learn without a finite achievable goal, no answers, just questions? I have absolutely no idea! I am very uncertain 😉

The first thing that comes to mind, though, is that anyone who becomes a parent is “forced” to embrace uncertainty. It is an experience you have never had before, even if you temporarily took care of other people’s kids or younger siblings. I wouldn’t know coz I did neither, but I am pretty sure there is nothing like the uncertainty of being a first-time parent. Of the conflicting advice you get from veteran parents, your parents, books, TV, etc., and then you find yourself responsible for this unique little individual who does not fit anyone else’s notion of children and you find yourself unable or unwilling to “conform” to any external standard of what “good” parenting is. Where you try to reconcile your philosophy with your instinct with your capacity with what is feasible and come up with something inherently messy and incredibly frustrating but at the same time amazingly exhilarating.

Now if only I could convince my students that this is actually a good thing in formal (and informal) learning! They would have to unlearn quite a lot. I think maybe thinking of it as serendipity instead of uncertainty would put a more positive spin on things, but that might be misleading because uncertainty also entails risk. It is just that I believe those risks are already there, it is just time to embrace them.

I have huge problems with deterministic, technical, approaches to curriculum. The myth that setting some quantifiable goal and taking steps towards achieving it will result in student learning. They myth that verbalizing it and making it measurable will be a good thing, and cover the important aspects of learning. We all know that each learner is different and has different motivations, needs, goals, some of which are not yet clear to the learners themselves, let alone to us as teachers. It is one thing to try to plan, to write it down, etc., but another to actually believe that any of that really works. I am rather happy to keep modifying my syllabus as I go along, change the content, including readings and activities and focus of projects, change the rubrics according to students’ participatory input, change so many things, according to needs that arise throughout the time I am teaching them. I usually draw for my students a version of Pedler’s visual of learning communities, and it looks something like this:


The political situation in Egypt epitomizes uncertainty, you never know who will be in power tomorrow and what they will do, or how the ousted will react. You never know which day you will be able to go out safely and which not (this has been the case in more extreme ways in other countries in the region, but because it is new to Egypt, we are still adjusting and figuring things out). I never know if next week my students will be able to make it to class.


So the biggest uncertainty facing me soon, the situation where I will need to teach others to embrace uncertainty, is my teaching next semester. I have been asked to teach two courses in one course. Two different sets of externally-defined standards (which i modify in interpretation, but still, two different courses) while meeting the students at the same time. This all would have been relatively simple online. Have a group of them use one fb group or discussion forum, while the others do another, and have a few activities in common. But no, I have to meet them face to face the majority of the time if possible. More on this riddle here

I am thinking it is the perfect opportunity to tackle these issues of unlearning what a traditional course is, and instead unpacking what a good learning experience really is for a professional (my students are teachers). It is an opportunity to open up the discussion about rhizomatic learning and Pedler’s learning community – where different learners clearly have diverse goals but they work together, each taking their own chosen path, interdependently, sharing resources along the way.

I have not really answered the question Dave raised. I don’t think it has a generic answer, but must only have a pool of contextual, temporal potential solutions that may or may not work. I cannot know what will work with my group of students until I meet and get to know them, I will not know each day until its circumstances become clearer to me. But I have ideas… Festering. And am hoping for inspiration from everyone here. Negotiated curriculum? Definitely? Discussion of unlearning? Definitely. Diverse learning goals? Definitely. Rhizomatic learning? I hope so! All these things I am definite about? They are the embracing of uncertainty, but whether I can help my students embrace them while not making them feel I am shortchanging them, not giving all of myself, this is my concern.

Looking forward to seeing what others have to say about this…


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