Puzzles and Mysteries: What is Going on Here?

Most people find the concept of radical uncertainty natural and indeed obvious. For them, the challenge is not to accept the existence of radical uncertainty but to find ways of coping with it. (Kay & King, 2021, p. xv)

Clearwater Lake, Wells Gray Provincial Park

Radical uncertainty is defined by Kay and King (2021) as the combination of “imperfect knowledge of future states of the world and of the consequences of action” (p. 160).  The authors describe these situations of such radical uncertainty as either a puzzle or a mystery. Puzzles have specific rules and lead to single, well-defined solutions although, like a puzzle, reaching these solutions might still be difficult to accomplish. Mysteries on the other hand are vague, poorly understood and have no verifiable solution. For all leaders, the COVID-19 pandemic was more of a mystery rather than a puzzle which required changes in leadership practice beyond what may have been identified prior to the pandemic (Tourish, 2020).

Scholars of leadership have an opportunity through the context of the pandemic to thoroughly examine and better understand how leaders have addressed such radical uncertainty in these circumstances (Kay & King, 2021; Romeijn & Roy, 2014). The pandemic has presented new opportunities for improved leadership practices some of which will endure into the post-pandemic period and change the way that leadership is done. In education, one of these opportunities included new ways to communicate with and involve students and stakeholder communities in leadership (Anderson et al., 2022). Other practices in educational organizations involved inventing new structures to solve radical uncertainty which involved a greater number of people with a broader range of expertise (Smith, 2012). A central challenge for the theory and practice of leadership in the post-pandemic period is to identify what practical ways of communicating and finding solutions emerged which can help leaders better cope with events of radical uncertainty where “the margin of error is high and consequences of failure potentially catastrophic” (Tourish, 2020, p. 265). While the literature on crisis management is well developed, specific preparation for educational leaders has not kept up with the current circumstances, and more models are needed which provide direction for leaders in developing action and response to increasingly complex situations of uncertainty (Beven, 2016; Eiser et al., 2012; Sword-Daniels et al., 2018).

Leaders need a more complete understanding of the theoretical and practical components of how to address uncertainty in the future. In education, is it possible to change the perspective on uncertain events toward making not only surviving the crisis but making the system more resilient and more successful (Tamtik & Darazsi, 2022)? When people are confronted by situations where there is no established method for determining what action to take, the natural response is to claim that ‘we don’t know what to do’ which in the reality of life is not an available option. Kay and King say that when confronted by a mystery, leaders must first seek understanding about ‘what is going on here?’ (Kay & King, 2021) and identify the sources and causes of uncertainty. My studies seek to understand better the mystery of “what is going on here?” so that leaders can then focus on the question, “what to do?”. While leaders can never have a perfect knowledge of outcomes, we can at least have a better idea of what just happened here so that we are better prepared when uncertainty appears, in whatever form. 


Anderson, D. J., MacCormack, J., & Sider, S. (2022). Exploring school principals’ experiences during the first four months of the pandemic as a way to reimagine inclusive education. Canadian Journal of Educational Administration and Policy, 200, 37–48. https://doi.org/10.7202/1092706ar

Beven, K. (2016). Facets of uncertainty: Epistemic uncertainty, non-stationarity, likelihood, hypothesis testing, and communication. Hydrological Sciences Journal, 61(9), 1652–1665. https://doi.org/10.1080/02626667.2015.1031761

Eiser, R. J., Bostrom, A., Burton, I., Johnston, D. M., McClure, J., Paton, D., van der Pligt, J., & White, M. P. (2012). Risk interpretation and action: A conceptual framework for responses to natural hazards. International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction, 1, 5–16. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijdrr.2012.05.002

Kay, J., & King, M. (2021). Radical uncertainty: Decision-making beyond the numbers. W.W. Norton & Company. https://wwnorton.com/books/9781324004783#!

Romeijn, J.-W., & Roy, O. (2014). Radical uncertainty: Beyond probabilistic models of belief. Erkenntnis, 79(6), 1221–1223. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10670-014-9687-9

Smith, C. (Ed.). (2012). Pluralism in the arts in Canada: A change is gonna come. Our Schools/Our Selves Education Foundation ; Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

Sword-Daniels, V., Eriksen, C., Hudson-Doyle, E. E., Alaniz, R., Adler, C., Schenk, T., & Vallance, S. (2018). Embodied uncertainty: Living with complexity and natural hazards. Journal of Risk Research, 21(3), 290–307. https://doi.org/10.1080/13669877.2016.1200659

Tamtik, M., & Darazsi, S. (2022). Navigating turbulent waters: Leading one manitoba school in a time of crisis. Canadian Journal of Educational Administration and Policy, 200, 22–36. https://doi.org/10.7202/1092705ar

Tourish, D. (2020). Introduction to the special issue: Why the coronavirus crisis is also a crisis of leadership. Leadership, 16(3), 261–272. https://doi.org/10.1177/1742715020929242

Tamtik, M., & Darazsi, S. (2022). Navigating turbulent waters: Leading one manitoba school in a time of crisis. Canadian Journal of Educational Administration and Policy, 200, 22–36. https://doi.org/10.7202/1092705ar

Tourish, D. (2020). Introduction to the special issue: Why the coronavirus crisis is also a crisis of leadership. Leadership, 16(3), 261–272. https://doi.org/10.1177/1742715020929242

Sounding Like Yourself

“Man, sometimes it takes a long time to sound like yourself.” – Miles Davis.

(Quote brought to you by Bev & Etienne Wenger of Community of Practice fame https://lnkd.in/gAbSEzqm)

Wells Gray Provincial Park

I posted this quote on Linked In a couple of weeks ago as it expresses what any person seeking to establish their own voice feels as they write, sing, preach, paint or participate in any creative endeavour. Miles Davis had it right, that the goal of any of these pursuits is to sound like yourself as you express your voice.  For me, writing is one of the ways I try to sound like myself and have been pursuing this as a fledgling blogger, in academic writing, or in my personal journal writing. Other forms of writing I have engaged in make it hard to sound like yourself. Writing professional documents and letters, contract and collective agreement language, or newsletters to the school community are hard to establish your own voice in. My most triumphant success in writing so far has been a letter to the National Post when press reports about Prince William’s new girlfriend at the time and now future Queen, Kate, began to surface.  These reports mirrored exactly what had happened to William’s mother, Diana, and eventually resulted in her death in a fiery crash in a Paris tunnel as she was being pursued by a mob of paraparazzi. In my view, this was a path to destruction that society should learn from the past and not repeat.  My letter was chosen to be the letter of the day and I received my 3 minutes of fame (not quite the full 15!) with family and friends for this accomplishment. I think a key reason for this success is that I was expressing my true, inner voice on this topic.

Since this minor triumph, while building a record of my activity as an educator on my blog and getting some good marks on academic papers, I persist in my sometimes amateurish attempts to seek further fame and glory with published writing. For any aspiring scholar seeking to “get published” is a basic expectation, but between writing literature reviews as a graduate research assistant, writing and re-writing drafts of my research proposal, and my work as a sessional instructor haven’t yet had much time to pursue this with any depth.  A minor accomplishment was to co-publish an abstract of a presentation made with my colleague as part of work as research assistant so I have something at least to show for my efforts to date. Sounding like myself, however, remains an elusive target.

One my most memorable experiences with sounding like myself was being asked to conduct an interview as a part of a work-related investigation. I will never forget that the colleague who asked me to do this task said I should ask the questions, “like Glenn Borthistle” would ask the question. In other words, I was being asked to sound like myself when doing this task. What was meant by this of course is that there is a way to ask a question which elicits a non-defensive response from the rather than being accusatory which so often happens in workplace settings. Lawyers are good at choosing their voice carefully when asking questions to get a truthful answer. My task was to make sure the person felt comfortable enough that they would provide a fulsome and complete answer so that the truth would come out.  While there are clearly times to use either of these approaches requiring different voices, this was a case where sounding like myself was the better approach to get the truth out. 

In the year ahead as I finalize my research proposal and begin to write my final dissertation, I will need to sound like myself in my writing and write about uncertainty in a way which sounds like myself. My doctoral supervisor has likened the PhD odyssey to an “inner journey” which sounds an awful lot like trying to sound like myself. Miles Davis expresses well the feelings of exasperation that can occur when it takes a long time to sound like yourself.  No matter what else is tugging at my scattered attention, I need to set aside regular time for writing and most of all, not to be afraid to sound like myself!

Cause and Effect

October 2022

Whether causation “really exists” or not, it certainly exists in our “life world.”. . . The world of ordinary language (the world in which we actually live) is full of causes and effects. It is only when we insist that the world of ordinary language . . . is defective . . . and look for a “true” world . . . that we end up feeling forced to choose between the picture of “a physical universe with a built-in structure” and “a physical universe with a structure imposed by the mind.” H. Putnam (1990). “Realism with a Human Face, p. 89.

Adams River, British Columbia, Canada

When I was first presented with the topic of causation as part of my work as a research assistant, I was hesitant and uncertain. I hadn’t thought much about causation whether in real life or in education and was unsure about what I would discover about the topic. The first few articles I read focused on calculation and computation which, suffice it to say, did not ‘engage’ me in the topic. As I began to read more however, I began to see that attributing causality is not only a component of human experience, but that it is a central and necessary part of research activity. Humans always want to know the ‘why’ of the reason something has happened and much of the activity of the academic world is intended to uncover causal factors in events. The above quote by Hilary Putnam supports the notion that causation is also part of our ordinary ‘life world’ whether it comes from a physical or mental perspective. Simple connections such as the effect of losing weight due to the cause of increasing exercise or reducing food intake are pretty familiar to us. Another example of causation in daily life is that if I treat others well, they will treat me well in return (this one always works, right?). Think about how many of your daily activities are filled with cause-and-effect connections like these. There must be verifiable ways of making causal inferences or explanations about what factors contribute to the ‘why’ of events? My reading since my initial non-engagement has moved away from the calculation and computation approach to causation, and about finding other ways to understand and make determinations of causality.

In his article, The Importance of Qualitative Research for Causal Explanation in Education , Joseph Maxwell (2012) writes that most causal approaches have been based on scientific, quantitative methods usually through Randomized Controlled Trial (or RCT) methods. These clinical trials are based on random selection of groups and then using statistical analyses to make connections between the effect of one variable on another. Clinical trials like this are based on positivist applications of variance theory that the world can be explained as the action of one variable on another. According to Maxwell, limiting causality to this approach is based on a “narrow, incomplete, and dated conception of causality” (p. 655). While these clinical approaches are certainly valid sources of cause and effect, there are other ways to finding cause. An added approach to causality can be established by qualitative methods which use “‘realist,’ ’generative’, or ‘process’” approaches (p. 656) which account for how the context of actual events contributes to outcomes. This is called “causal realism” (Little, 2010, cited in Maxwell, 2012, p. 657) and is based on the understanding that process is an essential part of causation. Causal realism recognizes the importance of process and includes making our beliefs, values, intentions and perceived meanings a part of the causation equation. It is a worldview which includes constructivist understandings which are limited, incomplete and not always objective. I don’t know about you, but this sounds like the world I live in!

Traditional approaches from clinical trials are important but often neglect other factors which can impact why things happen the way they do. Cause and effect are a reality in our world and needs to be included in how we build our understandings and conclusions about how the world works.. Humans will always want to know ‘why’ something has happened and a little bit of knowledge of the field of causality is important not only to researchers but to us regular folks.  Consider me now ‘engaged’ by this topic!

Source: Maxwell, J. A. (2012). The Importance of Qualitative Research for Causal Explanation in Education. Qualitative Inquiry, 18(8), 655–661. https://doi.org/10.1177/1077800412452856


“Intelligence on the other hand is associated with judgment; that is, with selection and arrangement of means to effect consequences and with choice of what we take as our ends.” John Dewey in The Quest for Certainty, 1929, p. 203.

Trapp Lake outside of Kamloops, British Columbia

We can all point to times in our lives when we have made good decisions which produced good consequences. Regrettably, we can also point to times in our lives when we made decisions that did not create the consequences we were seeking.  Dewey suggests that it is this ability to make judgments which result in good outcomes which is the true mark of intelligence rather than determining intelligence by having a firm grasp on elements of knowledge about something. This is why Dewey is one of the fathers of the pragmatist school of philosophy as what you do with what you know is more important than just what you know.

The knock on academia is that it is all about theory and accumulation of knowledge rather than practical application to real world problems.  It is tempting for the PhD student to focus only on intellectual growth and build intelligence around theory alone.  In fact, this is what others expect of you when they hear that you are a grad student at the doctoral level and will say things like “Why do you want to know more about education?” However, if you have experienced the candidacy process where one turns from a student into a PhD candidate, then you will know there is another side to the story. I am at the point where I am working toward that next step in the Doctoral process and have my research critiqued and then approved so that I can go out and collect my data. 

Becoming a PhD candidate is about taking the knowledge of theory that has been gained from classes and individual reading and applying them to a do-able and practical-able research proposal which will add to the knowledge base.  This step requires the approval of a supervisory committee which is charged with maintaining the standards of academia as they provide a critical eye to the aspiring PhD candidate’s work. It is a daunting prospect for sure.  As Dewey talked, about we are only seen to be truly intelligent when we are able to do something with our knowledge and address a real-world problem.

My research is about how Superintendents responded to the uncertainty created during the pandemic.  Where the uncertainty came from, what were the responses to this uncertainty, and what action did the Superintendent take toward influencing these responses.  Understanding more about how these important educational and community leaders acted to determine responses to uncertainty will contribute toward the knowledge base of how leaders of organizations should act in response to uncertainty which will surely arise again (or maybe never leave us!). That is my intent at least.

Dewey goes on to say that if better judgments can be made, it will be worth the trade-off of “a loss of theoretical certitude for a gain in practical judgment” (Dewey, 1929, p. 204).  Is this trade off true in your field of work or life as well? 

First Day of School!

It’s still a thrill after all these years!

Nothing like being with students on the first day of school! Great to have students interacting about Thomas & Kilmann’s 5 conflict resolution styles. What is your conflict resolution style? #tru

Source: https://www.qualitygurus.com/conflict-resolution-thomas-kilmann-model/


Getting to the Light

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

Authority in a World of Uncertainty

“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[1] 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.”[2]  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.”[3] 

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?

[1] https://www.greenfieldreporter.com/2021/11/04/covid-19-decisions-weigh-on-school-officials/

[2] https://www.kshb.com/news/coronavirus/school-board-leaders-describe-navigating-challenging-year-and-decisions-making-ahead-of-elections

[3] https://crpe.org/lessons-from-remote-learning-in-six-school-systems/ (p. 36). 

The Pandemic as an Accelerator of Shifts in Schools

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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This Week in Uncertainty: Dimensions and Discontinuity

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