May 18, 2024

A Critically Important Issue for Education – Certainty (even if the science is far from certain)

Originally published in 2009

Last night, students in one of my pre-service methods courses presented a curricular lesson they designed and a paper exploring a dilemma encountered while student teaching. There was plenty of insecurity in their presentations – voices trailing off into near silence, as well as defensiveness when asked to support an argument or defend a position. Such reactions are predictable.

What struck me as significant was how future educators standing on quicksand were quite certain about their ideas, regardless of how flimsy they happened to be. When confronted with clearly obvious factual errors in the proposed lesson, more than one student teacher responded with a version, “Well, I disagree,” or “Because I said so.”

Certainty book cover

It would have been nice if these students demonstrated some humility and were eager to change their stance (and modify the lesson). Seymour Sarason often points out that schools “lack a capacity for self-correction.” In this case, it’s probably reasonable to conclude that schools are merely collections of teachers.

Certainty not only afflicts teacher wannabes. A few nights ago, a non-American blogger from a country far far away wrote a blog posting and then announced its existence to the world via Twitter. This blog quoted an online magazine’s account of a presentation by a popular purveyor of clichés and other nonsense about contemporary education. After careful deliberation I decided to ask the Twitterer/blogger about the fallacies and factual errors he/she reported in the blog post.

The blogger responded that he/she did feel a bit queasy about the validity of the information, but passed it on as the basis of policy recommendations nonetheless. Each iteration of the reporting – the article, blog post about the article and then the tweet about the blog post about the article about the presentation – FAILED to question the validity or even “truthiness” of the claims made by the original myth-maker. Each iteration leads to a greater impression that the information has been vetted and is factual.

I fear that Web 2.0 amplifies this false sense of certainty and accelerates the rate at which “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” (attributed to Mark Twain, even if I have reason to suspect otherwise given how every clever quip seems attributed to Twain)

Just in time!

Salon features an incredibly timely article*, The Certainty Epidemic, by a medical doctor named Robert Burton. Despite a reliance on neuroscience that may represent an even greater false sense of certainty where none is warranted, the article (and book it touts) raises important issues for all of us, such as:

We must learn to substitute “I believe” for “I know.”

Watch Stephen Colbert’s stunning 2006 performance at the White House Correspondents Dinner where he lampooned President George W. Bush’s reliance on his gut, rather than on his head. [Warning: There may be a juvenile commercial prior to the actual speech. It’s the best clip I found to embed in this blog. You may also watch the video, sans-commercial, here.

* Note: The “science” used to make Burton’s claims should be taken with a grain of salt and runs the risk of detracting from the important issue of us professing certainty when we are merely stating an opinion.

8 thoughts on “A Critically Important Issue for Education – Certainty (even if the science is far from certain)

  1. Gary,

    Great article.

    I’ve often been shocked by the level of certainty (possibly self-confidence) expressed by teachers about their methods and actions. I’ve wondered if teachers were taught that such certainty was necessary when dealing with children and parents (possibly to maintain authority).

    Do you find this “certainty” a general characterstic of teachers? Or do you think this term’s students were more of an exception?


  2. Gary,

    Your post definitely remarks on something worth noting. Your Tweet asked if it were “an important issue to discuss.” Although an increase in “certainty” as it stands is not a crippling epidemic, I do feel disappointed when I am unable to offer a piece of constructive criticism to a colleague at any level.

    Your iteration of the issue calls to mind the way some personalities are hostile toward the reality that there may be better ways to perform a task or present a lesson. Teachers should neither feel as though they are being offensive when offering a suggestion, nor should one become defensive when legitimate suggestions are presented. It is that same arrogant ignorance that leads us to “believe” that we are doing what’s best, even though we really have no clue!

    Your pre-service bunch may hint toward a trend of increasing certainty, but I see this same mindset plaguing education at all levels already.

    Thanks for the discussion piece.

  3. An interesting post. I’d agree technology certainly makes it easier to spread false certainties. Then again it also makes it easier for the average joe to confront these certainties and spread the rebuttal. I recall McCleods posts last winter about the false prophets of educational change in regards to some high ticket consultants.

  4. Charlie,

    Has the rebuttal or Scott McCleod’s post cost any of these false prophets a day of consulting or speaking work? I don’t think so.

    Fans are a manifestation of similarly sloppy thinking to the certainty discussed. Being a fan of a consultant/speaker or of a particular technology makes one a lot less susceptible to changging one’s mind.

    Credentials are not checked. Facts are not checked. Mind-changing is rare. I could cite specific examples, but don’t wish to be sued.

  5. “Without a measureless and perpetual uncertainty, the drama of human life would be destroyed.” Winston Churchill.

    A couple of years into my teaching career I started advocating the idea that teachers could benefit from embracing risk, uncertainty and ambiguity. I don’t think many who encountered the suggestion found it especially appealing.

    The certainty also seems to be the expected outcome of teaching practice – too many teachers seem to want a fool-proof recipe they can apply to bring about a very narrow focussed and specific change.

    Gödel’s Incompleteness Theory – “No logical representation exists which can prove its own constancy”

    Some bits and bob’s from some of my old conference presentations

    Moral ambiguity

    * Many “games for learning” are little more than “learning objects”. They lack ambiguity, especially moral ambiguity.

    Learned fragility isn’t something they’ll teach you about at university – but you’ve already seen it haven’t you?

    Teachers can be adaptive, responsive, resilient, comfortable with risk, ambiguity and uncertainty, to some extent they can be courageous… teachers can be culture jammers when they need to be.. they can be resistant, they can be provocative, they can instigate meaningful change…

    what they can’t do is be responsible for other people who refuse to claim ownership of emotions, beliefs and other behaviours that are predicated in deferring personal responsibility…

    Simplicity is a trap

    * “… process is often sacrificed in efforts to form taxonomies, structures, and determinative, monocausal paradigms” – Thomas M. Malaby

    A culture of ease (Malaby)

    “It’s too hard” doesn’t cut it!! (Malaby again I think)

    We have to embrace difficulty, complexity and challenge – just as we need to embrace risk, uncertainty and ambiguity

    Scott Kim (Look Twice, Inc) – When a Discipline becomes a way of life, priorities become invisible…

    Rambling… yes… but it can become coherent with a bit of thought and bit of perceptual position shifting!

  6. Thanks for the thoughts. This is also quite prevalent in business as well. Perhaps certainty is confused with power or command?

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