This Week in Uncertainty: Heisenberg’s Principle

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.

Walter White as Heisenberg

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. 

This Week in Uncertainty: Addressing the Gap

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.

Which path should I take?

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.

Cooper, A., & Levin, B. (2013). Research Use by Leaders in Canadian School Districts. International Journal of Education Policy and Leadership, 8(7), 1-15.

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.

Unlearning by Adam Grant

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!

This Week In Uncertainty: Reaching the Unachievable Ideal

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” [1] 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!

[1] 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.

Things I Think I Have Learned About Learning – Pt 3: Taking learning out of the classroom

“readiness for change and urgency arising from the current crisis has the potential to shift the education system from one of outdated “schooling” to future focused ‘learning” and take learning out of the classroom and into the world.” Michael Fullan

A problem was presented to us in a recent class, “What about those students who don’t return to school next year?” For most, getting back to normal means that kids will return to classrooms and the great engine of schooling as we have known it will begin to roar to life again.  As the problem proposes however, it may not be the case that all students will make this choice to return to school and get back to normal. A recent New York Times article gave examples of students who will make the conscious choice NOT to return to school after the crisis moment of the pandemic is over.  The reasons for this could include working as a choice or family necessity, preference for staying at home which is labelled as ‘school hesitancy’, and perhaps simply fear for safety.  For some students, this choice to not return could be an expression of how the pandemic has hit low-income and minority students harder and makes getting back to normal both a less possible and possibly less desirable choice.  In the short term, 2021-22, schools will determine how significant of a factor student choice will play in their return to school planning and schools will need to be ready with plans for blended learning and other approaches which will accommodate and provide meaningful learning to these students. In the long term, as the article asks, what are the implications for extended remote learning by choice?  Is this the moment when the bricks and mortar structure begins a slow death as the base structure for education?

Michael Fullan discusses how the pandemic and its many impacts on society can be leveraged to drive a reimagining of education.  Long an advocate for system wide reforms, in Education Reimagined Fullan and his colleagues present their hybrid model for learning as “more than a quick fix” and a “way to enhance and accelerate learning by providing student centered approaches to meet diverse learning needs” (p. 9).  He asks six questions to drive the reimagining conversation including, “what kind of learning is needed for this current and future complexity?” Fullan also provides recommendations for instruction that, “quality is more important than how lessons are delivered” and that providing support for, “pupils to work independently can improve learning outcomes” (p. 15).  Fullan concludes that this current moment is what Kuhn identified as a true paradigm shift, and that seizing “the opportunity to create a whole new and powerful learning system is more appealing than slipping back into a status quo that does not work” (p. 21).

There are many authors and organizations also engaged in this conversation.  In a blog by Heather Wolpert-Gawson called Has the Pandemic Ushered in New Norms in Education?, some “new norms” have already been established including involving the community as a true partner and increasing engagement with students to allow more choice about what they are learning.  In Back to the Future of Education, the OECD looks at four potential alternative pathways for the structure of schooling which it calls:  schooling extended, education outsourced, schools and learning hubs, and learn-as-you-go.  Each of these responses is designed to respond to the situation according to the amount of continuity or discontinuity which may result after the pandemic. 

How much will this be a time of real change in education?  Are we really at a time of reimagining or will the drive for a return to normal, with all of its deficiencies, prevail? Predicting the future is always perilous and education will need to respond to these pressures in a thoughtful, collaborative, and student-centered way. A good place to start is by establishing new pedagogical approaches which Fullan identifies as hybrid or blended learning and which needs to become the new norm.  Learning occurs anywhere and everywhere and limiting learning activities to the classroom only restricts the possibilities for engaging and relevant learning that can occur outside of the classroom.  Next, the OECD idea of schools as a learning hub in the community in partnership with others needs to take greater hold.  The fortress education mentality has denied children opportunities for learning outside the walls and as stated in this scenario, the walls need to come down to make education truly a community effort.  As the OECD (2020) states, the benefits of opening the walls will be to “connect schools to their communities, favouring ever-changing forms of learning, civic engagement and social innovation” (p. 49). Finally, leadership and organizational models need to keep up with the changing environment in society by building adaptive organizations as explained here by Arena & Uhl-Bien to better be able to respond to these pressures.  School systems are complex are generally traditionally organized and better need to reflect how organizations are changing all around them.

The future remains uncertain & complex, and it is difficult to anticipate what direction course instruction, school structure and organizational design will take.  While there were certainly calls for serious reform prior to the pandemic, there is no doubt these will only be increased after the current moment of COVID crisis passes and a post-pandemic re-assessment of how we should best imagine teaching and learning occurs.  This is not a moment that should be wasted no matter how strong the desire is to get back to normal and school systems need to engage with their communities and teachers, students, and administrators to truly take learning out of the classroom and into the world.

Things I Think I Have Learned About Learning – Part 2: Connections

Much is being written about best practices for how to do online learning during this pandemic age and unlike Dr. Seuss I won’t pretend to be an expert on the subject. However, I have been afforded a unique perspective and experience from which to share some reflections about online learning having looked at this as, as the old song says, “from both sides now” as an educator and a student, and have experienced some of the best and worst of online learning over this past year from both of these viewpoints.  When my online journey began one year ago, the initial task was to organize instruction at our school through a Learning Management System for students and teachers who would be in their homes on opposite sides of an ocean for what was initially to be for only two to three weeks to give this COVID thing time to “settle down.” If only that were true.  At that time, because of this perception that online learning would be a temporary measure and from our lack of experience, we focused mainly on asynchronous (not at the same time) instruction and teachers busily prepared online activities that students could complete on their own time without worrying too much about the quality of the teacher-student connection.  As we progressed through the spring and it became clear that face to face (f2f) instruction would not be re-established, and so teachers were encouraged (and required) to increase their synchronous (at the same time) contact and regularly connect with students despite time zone challenges. 

Although there were differences in the connections established between teachers and students, many teachers developed excellent practices to build strong connections with their students and quickly grasped that the quality of the teacher-student connection was still “the main thing.” With the onset of much better interactive platforms and educators learning from experience, we are long past the days when computer-based instruction meant a student sitting behind a computer working asynchronously and know that interaction and communication is required to make any classroom work. Indeed, if I was to do anything over again as an educator from this first foray into online learning last spring,  it would be to increase the synchronous component as much as possible and decrease the time students are working on their own.    

After returning home to begin my PhD studies to become a student myself, I soon learned that I would be an online student and so began a different online journey.  While I was disappointed not to be in f2f instruction, I also noticed the irony of being in front of a screen as a learner rather than educator and plunged into my studies eager to have this experience this from a new perspective.  I have found that the name of the game is still about building strong connections between teachers and learners and the classes that I have participated in so far have at least three characteristics that have contributed to building these successful connections and will call these community-building, differentiated structure, and technological ease

  • Community-building means that, to the greatest degree possible, the online experience simulates an in-person experience and feels like a classroom.  It is really hard to create community when cameras are off and people can’t be seen and is a pet peeve of mine so cajoling or requiring that cameras be on as much as possible is essential. Finding ways to encourage and promote communication between teacher and student, and between students is another key way to create a community feel. Breaking classes into smaller discussion groups is a key strategy to help overcome the awkward silences that can occur in larger group settings. I also think it is fair game to notice the personal artifacts and pets and people that appear via the window into people’s lives that Zoom affords us and that just noticing these helps create authentic community within the class.

  • Another component that makes online experiences successful is how the class is structured for teaching and learning. If traditional transmission of learning through direct instruction does not engage students in a f2f class, it works even less so in an online environment and a greater variety of differentiated modes for communicating and instruction need to be applied.  As a student, I must say I enjoy some direct instruction so this doesn’t mean that the teacher should altogether abandon providing some direct instruction. However, after about twenty minutes of “hypnotizing the chickens” (a US Military term for the fog that sets in after about twenty minutes of a PowerPoint) other methods for communicating information need to be applied. One of the best methods for this that I have experienced as a student is to breakout into small groups for discussion and for the group to complete a Google form which can be contributed to by every one in the group. This can then be used to share with the larger class when the breakout session ends. Coming up with different varieties of activities is essential for students to remain engaged.

  • Technological ease means that the technology has to be easy, efficient and just has to work.  Technical points such as having a good camera with proper lighting (and yes, a good background), good wi-fi connections, are good starting points but the other teaching and learning activities need to be well structured.  My experience as an educator was very positive with a learning management platform and while these are now commonplace, there are advantages and disadvantages to each platform but the main point being that there should be a single entry point for all teaching and learning activity. Students will need to easily navigate whatever learning management system is used to find and share course material, hand in assignments, and easily dialogue and connect with students.  Teachers should share live links with students in real-time to allow students to easily locate resources and not make students go searching for these resources later.  While there is concern about creating distractions when providing something in real time, I find there is more value being able to focus on the content in the resource and not spending time finding the resources on my own.

These and other practices are supported in a short literature review here called “The Efficacy of Virtual Instruction in K-12 Education” from Georgia State University (2020), identified as one of the top ten significant studies of 2020 by Edutopia. While this pre-pandemic review concluded that effectiveness of online learning is at best mixed, there are some practices that support the points made above with the most significant being of the value of “incorporating peer and teacher feedback” (p. 4) into learning activities. One study concluded that there is a “strong, positive relationship” (p. 6) between positive rates for course completion and student grades when there are strong student-teacher interactions.  Relationship quality remains an important factor in student success whether in f2f or virtual settings and as any successful teacher will say, is one factor that should be sought for at all costs. 

While it is unclear how long instruction will be provided in a virtual or blended  environment, for the foreseeable future at least all teachers and students need to find out how to build and then maintain strong connections to provide the greatest chance for creating student success.   As education prepares for the next steps into the post-pandemic period we will see what practices will carryover. Which brings us to Part 3 of this series, Things I Think I Have Learned About Learning called “After the pandemic: what’s next?” Until then, stay connected out there in virtual land.

Things I Think I Have Learned About Learning – Part 1

The title for this entry came from a daily blog/newsletter I subscribe to called “Things I Think I Think” by Mark Horstman.  You may know Mark from the Manager Tools podcast series (if you don’t you should!) and being a former army officer he is usually pretty point blank with his opinions and advice. However, as evidenced by the title and this graphic from Manager Tools, he is also is open enough to admit that there is a lot of stuff he doesn’t even know that he doesn’t know.

This past semester at school has been an experience like this.  While there are things I have learned about learning which confirmed what I feel quite certain about, I am never too quick to announce the certainty of something I think I may have learned.  Anyone who has been in education knows that there are too many moving parts and factors in the equation to be certain that something will be true 100% of the time. However, like Mark, saying that there are things I think I’ve learned also represents that there are things that the combination of research and experience tells us are true.  In the three parts of this blog over this first month of the year, I will describe three things I think I’ve learned from this past semester and apply to this current age we are living in. The first is about the social aspect of learning, the next are some thoughts about online learning from the perspective of both a student and teacher, and the third about some next steps forward for education as we prepare for the post-COVID era.

The first thing I think I’ve learned about learning is about the social component of  learning.  David Brooks writes in a recent NY Times column that “people change when they are put in new environments, in permanent relationship with diverse groups of people” and describes how learning with others is superior to traditional modes of direct instruction or training.  Learning is best seen in this way as a team sport and while this is an intuitive idea, it has also been formalized by learning theorists in various ways one of them being Communities of Practice or CoPs.  Wenger and Lave are the theorists usually credited with  this idea and describe CoPs in three specific dimensions.  

The first dimension is the common interest of the members involved in the community, referred to as the domain, and defines what the community of practice cares about.  These would be things such as photography or a public speaking or even a sport. The second dimension, called community, talks about the quality and depth of relationships which create the bonds between members and the resulting connections formed as a result.  The third dimension of practice develops as knowledge within the community is built through the social and shared learning activities that group members participate in together.  If you think about it, you are probably now or have been involved in a community such as this whether as part of a hobby, social or church group in the past.  Think about how much you learned as a result of the interplay of the common interests, relationships, and common activity which occurred in these groups and how this shared experience has spurred you on to further learning or maybe even driven a specific career pursuit or personal passion.

I know what you are thinking, this all sounds great but how does this work in an age of online learning?  We will look further at online learning in Part 2, but communities of practice are and have been popping up online in the past few years initially to connect people separated by geography and now are growing in number further as a necessity of the times.  Online communities include all three features of person-to-person CoPs (that’s domain, community, and practice) but instead of occurring face to face happen in a virtual format.  For myself in these recent times, I have been surprised and gratified from my own experience by the amount of online community which can develop whether it be withing an online class or from something external to a class.  My own experience arriving at university and not knowing a soul and only being able to get to know teachers and fellow students from an online experience confirms for me that community and connections can be developed online.  Even though separated by time and distance, our common interest of learning the subject matter, combined with our regular online gatherings and the activities which we have been able to complete together, have resulted in a remarkable degree of connection and learning for myself and I believe for my fellow students also.  I can say with confidence that in each of the classes a community of practice was established and the interaction which occurred online was a key component of the learning process. The good news arising from this is that we shouldn’t feel that we  have to wait for face to face interaction again to benefit from the social component of learning, however the structure of these online communities does have to be shaped with intention which will be discussed further. I will write more about this in Part 2 of Things I think I’ve learning about learning when we discuss the topic of learning online.

Re-post: Blueprint for a post-pandemic future

Some great thoughts here from the author, Grant Lichtman, about considerations for education in the soon-to-be coming (it really is coming, isn’t it?) post-COVID world. His advice that, “The last seven months have been a hot mess, but this period has also been a cauldron of creativity” should be well taken by anyone in a leadership role to leverage this moment of creativity. On to the future!