Note: This is the script of my 3 Minute Thesis presentation earlier this year. The idea is to condense your thesis into a three minute presentation using only a single slide as a backdrop. This certainly forces the erstwhile scholar to be concise in both words and thought. Wouldn’t it be great if every speech was delivered in three minutes! Hope you enjoy this.
The translation of uncertainty in Mandarin Chinese is 不确定性( bù què dìng xìng) which carries two meanings. One is being dependent on chance and the other is the “state of being unsure.” To illustrate this, an ancient Daoist tale tells of an old man whose horse runs away and upon hearing of this loss, the old man’s neighbours respond with sadness and sympathy for the loss of his horse. The old man responds and simply says, “how can you be sure this is bad luck?” A few months later, the horse returns and brings other high quality horses with it at which the neighbours are overjoyed to which again the old man responds by asking, “How can you be sure this is good luck?”
The uncertainty created by COVID-19 has driven leaders away from traditional, rational decision making practices toward socially based adaptive practices which produce meaning and coherence for themselves and their organizations. The way the world is changed is characterized by one Superintendent who says, “I don’t think that this is a tunnel we’re going to come through and say, ‘Oh, we’re just back to daylight.’ We’re just going to continue to navigate this.” How have leaders worked to get back to the light and what decision making practices have they used to make choices in such uncertain times?
My study will look at organizations which have taken an adaptive approach to these times. Sensemaking is one such adaptive process and is a social practice popularized by Karl Weick which involves engagement of people with evidence for the purpose of making the use of such evidence “meaningful and actionable” (Honig, 2008, p. 647). Sensemaking in organizations calls first for framing of events which occur outside of the expected (like COVID), then interpreting their meaning from a circumstantial or organizational perspective, and finally producing a plausible action plan to create a path forward (Weick & Sutcliffe, 2005). My research plan is to interview 6 Superintendents of school districts in Alberta and British Columbia to learn about how they and their organizations have adapted and made sense of this uncertain time so that these adaptive responses can be applied to the world which will emerge out of the tunnel of uncertainty.
To end the story…the presence of the horses leads to prosperity for the old man until one day when the old man’s son falls off a horse and breaks a leg while out riding. Predictably the neighbours are again distressed & the old man predictably responds “How do you know this is bad luck?” Soon after the old man’s army is attacked by bandits and everyone is killed except the old man and his injured son who both were unable to fight. The interpretation by Daoist philosophy is that one can never be certain when good luck will become bad, or when bad fortune will turn into good. Like the old man and his horse, this has been a difficult and often tragic time in the world but we must learn how these recent events in our lives, organizations, and social worlds can be used to lead us forward into the light.
Honig, M. I. (2008). District central offices as learning organizations: How sociocultural and organizational learning theories elaborate district central office administrators’ participation in teaching and learning improvement efforts. American Journal of Education, 114(4), 627–664. https://doi.org/10.1086/589317
Weick, K. E., & Sutcliffe, K. M. (2005). Organizing and the process of sensemaking. Organization Science (Providence, R.I.), 16(4), 409–421. https://doi.org/10.1287/orsc.1050.0133
This article warns of a coming crisis teachers start leaving the profession in droves and that more than just good “self-care” will be required. Is this prediction due only to the current pandemic driven crisis or is something more significant going on?
“The need for authority is a constant need of man. For it is the need for principles that are both stable enough and flexible enough to give direction to the processes of living in its vicissitudes and uncertainties.” John Dewey, The Problems of Men, p. 169.
It is the end of another year of uncertainty in the world with the only certainty that the new year will start with more of the same. In response to this problem, John Dewey proposes that authority is what provides the balance between “the processes of living” becoming either chaotic anarchy or inflexible oppression. While authority is often seen as a cause and not a solution to uncertainty, Dewey proposes that without the balance that authority provides uncertainty will persist and the world would be at the extremes of instability or rigidity. The present state of our uncertain world can be seen as the struggle to maintain authority without giving in to its constrictive excesses while maintaining a sufficient amount of order without constricting creativity and innovation. In the western world, cries for “freedom” are often heard pushing back against the over-reach of institutional authority, while in the parts of the world based on eastern traditions “stability” is the watchword to keep the forces of anarchy at bay. While it is an over-simplification to view every current issue in the world in this way, there is an element of truth in this explanation of the current state of the world. What is the proper balance of authority especially during times of such uncertainty as we are experiencing due to the ongoing pandemic and other events in the world? What are the key principles around which we can organize our own lives to meet this need and provide appropriate direction to social life in times like these?
Educational leaders have sought to maintain and establish authority to the current circumstances in a number of ways. Many have relied on rigid provincial/state authority directives such as “We have protocols that must be followed set by the state and local boards of health,” says one school board member and in doing so have sought to be open about the rationale for decisions made. “We have done our best during the pandemic to keep our families informed and be transparent about why our team has made the decisions we have made…we have been honest and forthcoming about decisions we know may not be popular.” Others have recognized that these efforts have often been less than ideal but are determined to get through these difficult times. “I’m not going to say that everything has been handled perfectly,” said one board member. “I don’t know that there was a way to handle it perfectly, but I do think that we have to step back and look at the bigger picture and see that as hard as it is and as taxing as it has been on all of us, this is one moment in time that we are going to get through.” One conclusion some have reached is that the world is different and we will never go back to pre-pandemic ways of doing things. Says one superintendent, “I don’t think that this is a tunnel we’re going to come through and say, ‘Oh, we’re back to daylight.’ We’re just going to continue to navigate this.”
To respond to this dilemma we will need to examine both our behaviour and our beliefs about what Dewey calls the difference between “fixity and in change” (The Problems of Men, p. 157). How much are we willing to change our behaviour in order to become more flexible about finding new ways forward? How much do we stick with our beliefs about what has worked for us in the past in order to maintain stability? These questions have always created uncertainty and will continue to do so under the current circumstances of the pandemic. The answer will be not in rejection of authority, but in determining what kind of authority and what principles we will be willing to follow to navigate our way through this time of uncertainty. What behaviour and beliefs are you and your organization willing to have examined to determine the way forward and address the certainty of uncertainty?
Chris identifies four ways that schools, and high schools in particular, might actually change due to the impact of the pandemic. Will it really happen this time?
Why has it been different this time?
This is a question I think a lot about when I walk through our high schools, see the structures they are experimenting with and talk with students and staff. It feels different.
Now into my second quarter century in the business the idea of making shifts in high schools is not new. Hearing grumblings about the traditional bell schedule, the perceived lack of student engagement, concerns over relevance of courses and leaning experiences, and someone saying something like, “they need to be more like elementary schools” are all views that I have heard every single year of my career. And with complete earnest efforts each year I saw schools doing everything they could to find ways to think about time differently, reorganize class structures (e.g. for many Socials 8 and English 8 became Humanities 8) and an amazing array of strategies to build…
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How does one get a handle on uncertainty? In her 2019 survey, “Uncertainty in Decision-Making: A Review of the International Business Literature”, Sniazkho provides an integrated framework for categorizing 13 dimensions of uncertainty which are grouped into three categories of environmental, industry, and firm uncertainties. Environmental uncertainty identifies the uncertainties in the world around us and includes familiar sources such as economic, political, government, and cultural uncertainties as well as something called “discontinuous uncertainty” defined as unpredictability from nature itself, terrorist attack (yikes!) or technological disasters. Industry uncertainty includes uncertainties arising from risk specific to each industry and include those of input such as availability of human resources or finances, changes in demand from consumers, competition from other organizations in a similar market, and technological uncertainties such as how the service or product is produced and delivered. Firm uncertainty comes from within the organization and arises from the unpredictability of research and development results, how the firm operates and how productive employees are, and the impact of levels of previous experience within the organization.
There are many of these types and dimensions of uncertainty at play in education today, especially as we respond to the BIG uncertainty of COVID-19. The pandemic is clearly an environmental uncertainty of the discontinuous dimension arising from nature (or other source depending on your own beliefs) but also includes all the other sources in this category whether economic, political, government, or cultural. This environmental uncertainty has created industry uncertainty within education especially with determining how the “product” is delivered. While most schools have moved past pure online delivery there are still many pressures to provided various models of blended programs in both K-12 and higher education and this time may represent a paradigm shift in educational delivery. The OECD produced a paper early in the pandemic called Four Scenarios for Schooling which discussed possible directions for education in the post-pandemic period. While some of these pressures existed prior to the pandemic, COVID-19 has contributed much to uncertainties within the field of education with many questions still to be answered about what the future looks like for organizing schools and engaging learners. These ongoing uncertainties are present in both K-12 and higher education and has contributed to increased firm uncertainty at both levels arising initially from human resource challenges from teachers and support staff working from home and more recently dealing with vaccine mandates of various forms.
What does uncertainty look like in your school or district? In my view, this is a glass half-full time for education and for how schools are organized and how teachers connect with and engage with kids. The sudden demand created for better online educational experiences has transformed many classrooms and provided more opportunities for how students collaborate with others and connect with their teacher. My twitter feed is full of stories of creative ways that teachers are working with students including changing assessment practices, new ways of students presenting their work, and increased the ways for teachers to learn from each other. The view of uncertainty that I will try to take from my reading and study in this area is that as much as it creates doubt, it also creates opportunity to move into the vacuum created by conditions of uncertainty whether they arise from externally, within education, or from our school or district. Next, TWIU will look at methods to manage uncertainty. See you next time in blogland!
Sniazhko, S. (2019). Uncertainty in decision-making: A review of the international business literature. Cogent Business & Management, 6(1), 1650692. https://doi.org/10.1080/23311975.2019.1650692
“The probability function contains the objective element of tendency and the subjective element of incomplete knowledge.” W. Heisenberg quoted in Hacking (1975) The emergence of probability. Cambridge University Press. P. 148.
You may recognize the name of the scientist credited with this quote from recent popular culture fame as the pseudonym adopted by Walter White in Breaking Bad. Heisenberg was first used as a moniker to protect the identity of “Mr. White” as a mild-mannered chemistry teacher as he began his descent into the dark underworld of cooking and selling meth. Only later did this identity emerge as an alter-ego for WW as his cruelty, deception and betrayal were revealed as the show progressed and reached its conclusion. The quote above is from the real scientist, Werner Heisenberg (1901-1976), and talks about the two sides of probability as applied to making a decision about the likelihood of an event. One side of this is being able to understand about the frequency of an event occurring (the objective element) and the other is applying your knowledge and experience about an event (the subjective) when determining what to do with a given decision.
Heisenberg is also famous for his Uncertainty Principle from quantum physics (Note: I’m not a scientist and not really sure what quantum physics is about 😊). Heisenberg states that it is “impossible” to measure both the position (location) and momentum (velocity) of an object at the same time, meaning that while you can determine how fast a car is moving, you cannot determine exactly where it is at the time of measurement. In other words, you can have certainty about one thing, but can only have uncertainty about the other. This principle also applies to other scientific values which can’t be measured at the same time such as energy and time.
Why are we discussing this scientific principle in this article about uncertainty? By this point in the pandemic, every educational leader is familiar with the uncertainties which have plagued the world of schools and with recent outbreaks and record numbers of infections being recorded in some locations, it doesn’t look like this uncertainty will be ending anytime soon. Leaders and followers are going to have to learn to live, cope and combine what they know, with what they don’t know and make decisions under such uncertainty in determining what to do. The research I will be conducting will be on uncertainty, evidence, and decision making in organizations by central office leaders and my reading on this topic this fall will include articles about cognitive psychology, organization theory, educational administration & leadership, and pragmatic philosophy and intended to answer the central question: “What organizational decision-making processes do senior educational leaders use when making evidence-informed decisions under conditions of uncertainty?”
In tackling this topic, I will look into sources of evidence used when making decisions under conditions of uncertainty, how other members of the organization and community are involved in making meaning of this evidence, and the organizational and leadership practices used in reaching such decisions. Figuring out what to do has always been the central challenge for educational leaders and in these times has become even more so in these times as Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle is lived out daily. It is my hope that through identifying helpful practices in this study and others that educational leaders will be able to have more certainty about their practice and decisions made in the best interest of the students and teachers they lead.
In the previous post of This Week in Uncertainty, uncertainty was defined as anything short of the “unachievable ideal” of complete knowledge about the outcome of decisions made. Acknowledging this identifies that a gap exists between complete certainty and the knowledge we have that we have when reaching a decision which we can call the uncertainty gap. Evidence-informed decision making is one approach which is taken to bridge the uncertainty gap but this is in competition with intuition-based practices arising from experience and judgment. There is a lot out there on these topics and here is a small sample of the literature from my reading on this topic so far.
Within education there are different views of how decisions about teaching and learning should be made and the debate often comes down to an either/or choice of professional judgment vs. empirical research. Hempenstall (2015) defines evidence-based practice as that which relies on “reliable, replicable evaluation research to support it” (p. 113), but states that this has not always been the case and that educators have instead relied on “experience…eminence…or habit-based” (p. 113) practices. As a result of this reliance educators have missed an opportunity to base our profession on a solid empirical foundation and teaching has suffered in comparison to other professions by not establishing a solid empirical foundation for practice or decision making (Hempenstall, 2017). Other educators argue that what matters in education “crucially depends on judgments about what is educationally desirable” (Biesta, 2007, p.5) and that practitioners actually have limited opportunity to make judgments in ways that recognize their own contexts saying that the “focus on ‘what works’ makes it difficult if not impossible to ask questions of what it should work for and who should have a say in determining the latter” (p. 5). This debate places the scientific and democratic perspectives on education at odds with each other and thus who controls educational practice and research (Biesta, 2007). Because of this dilemma, uncertainty exists about the goals and the means of education and questions prevail about what the appropriate evidence for making decisions actually is.
According to a study by Hart (2018) decision making is a “choice between alternatives” and is a skill that is more complex for senior executives because these are not “programmed decisions” but require creativity beyond established policy and procedures (p. 15). The traditional approach using “rational analysis” is a good starting place, but the role played by intuition based on belief and/or experience is also recognized. How to appropriately blend the rational and intuitive is a central question and research into the role played by each is presented as well as discussion of the influence of situational context on how decisions are reached. Thirteen Superintendents interviewed for this study identified three common factors affecting their decisions: first, the strongly-held belief in putting student need and well-being as the top priority; the response of stakeholders and the community response to decisions and knowing when to consult; and, the influence of advice from other district leaders and fellow superintendents on the final decision (Hart, 2018). Two themes also surfaced that a rational process was more likely to occur if time was not a factor; and that the blended approach included a rational process to identify issues and analyze a problem, but the final decision was made often as a result of intuition and the “intuitive moment” (p. 21). Recommendations for both new and experienced district leaders were that: a rational model is a good starting point for decision making; understanding and skill is required for how to facilitate and involve others in meaningful consultation; allowing sufficient decision-making time when involving others is necessary; recognizing the situational nature of dilemmas and that now two situations are completely alike; and, taking the time to develop effective internal and external networks of advisors before decisions are made (Hart, 2018).
Three themes arise for me through these articles which form some interesting questions for future study. First, what constitutes evidence and what do we call evidence? Usually, we equate evidence with test scores or assessment results, but are those the only sources of evidence which can be included in educational decision making? Second, what is the appropriate role for experience and intuition to play in decision making under uncertainty? It is interesting that Hart identifies that rational processes are used at the start of decision making processes, but that intuition is often used in making the decision itself. Is that the real way that decisions are made? Finally, how and when should others be involved in decision making processes? Learning how to meaningfully consult with others in decisions is a key skill for leaders as the days of the decision maker sitting in a room alone making the decision are well past and the public and organizational members expect to be involved in decisions being made. What are the practices to involve others which are most helpful in making effective decisions?
There is much more reading to do and work to be done in order to be able to answer these (and many other) questions so I’d better get at it. For now, I am of the mind that finding the appropriate blend of evidence and judgment is the way forward but we will see what evidence I can find for supporting that conclusion. Have a great weekend and see you next time in This Week in Uncertainty.
Biesta, G. (2007). Why “What Works” won’t work: Evidence based practice and the democratic deficit in educational research. Educational Theory, 57(1), 1–22. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1741-5446.2006.00241.x
Cooper, A., & Levin, B. (2013). Research Use by Leaders in Canadian School Districts. International Journal of Education Policy and Leadership, 8(7), 1-15. https://doi.org/10.22230/ijepl.2013v8n7a449
Hart, W. (2018). Is it rational or intuitive? Factors and processes affecting school superintendents’ decisions when facing professional dilemmas. Educational Leadership Administration: Teaching and Program Development. 29(1)14-25.
Hempenstall, K. (2014). What works? Evidence-based practice in education is complex. Australian Journal of Learning Difficulties, 19(2), 113–127. https://doi.org/10.1080/19404158.2014.921631
I wonder if unlearning is harder than learning? Humility is in short supply these days and it is hard to admit when we have been wrong. While curiosity is a desirable trait and important to the learning process, it’s hard to always find courage to “face the mess” (a term borrowed from Andy Stanley) and identify our mistakes. #unlearn4forever!
Uncertainty has become a permanent condition in our world. Indeed, one of the only things we can be certain about, is that everything is now uncertain. The current and very ongoing pandemic is the #1 piece of evidence for this view, but everything else that previously provided stability in our world is not far behind. Politics, sports, the state of organized religion, and even the weather are further examples of how uncertain things have become. Anecdotally, how many times recently have I heard a comment from a trusted friend saying something like, “I just don’t know about the world anymore. Everything just feels weird.”
Determining methods for predicting the outcome of events has attracted some of the best minds in history. One definition of uncertainty I like so far is as “being any departure from the unachievable ideal of complete determinism”  which means to me that in a world without uncertainty we would only act on something when we can determine with complete certainty when the outcome is completely predictable. If however, we have something less than a completely determined outcome available to us, then we are in a state of uncertainty and the course of action isn’t clear. Recognizing the inevitability of uncertainty has led many fields of knowledge trying to address the unachievable ideal of complete determinism. Statisticians & Mathematicians have attempted to define uncertainty numerically through measurements and formulas of probability. Psychologists have defined it through individual factors such as judgment and the conflict created from the competition between our rational and emotional or intuitive brain. Policymakers try to come up with plans and policies which will either prevent uncertainty from occurring, or provide a full response and direction when it does. Decision Analysts are analytical, and Philosophers are philosophical and, while acknowledging that uncertainty exists, believe that we either don’t have a systemic enough view of the world or an accurate system of knowledge to follow in determining how to address the problems created by uncertainty.
For me, uncertainty is certainly an ongoing reality in my life and having this as the focus of my PhD study is intriguing. My research topic will be about how uncertainty impacts decision making in organizations and will focus on definitions, measures, and types of uncertainty; evidence and evidence-informed decision making within central offices in education; and how groups of people, rather than individuals, can be better equipped to address this “unachievable ideal.” Each week I will publish my thoughts and musings and what I am learning about how uncertainty can be addressed in this uncertain world and try to bring us a little closer to the certainty we all seek. Thanks for reading and see you next week in This Week in Uncertainty!
 Walker, W. E., Harremoe, P., Rotmans, J., & Janssen, P. (2003). A Conceptual Basis for Uncertainty Management in Model-Based Decision Support. Integrated Assessment, 4(1), 5–17.