Learning to Embrace Uncertainty

My new book, Risky Teaching: Harnessing the power of uncertainty in higher education is scheduled to come out later this summer from Routledge Press. Below is an excerpt from the Introduction and an outline of the chapters. And, yes, I had proposed this topic BEFORE the pandemic hit. Who knew we would all be talking about risk and uncertainty so much!

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“Our common understanding of risk often involves a negative frame such as when a colleague might say to you during your pre-tenure years, “I wouldn’t do that—it’s not worth the risk.” Or, in our current Covid-19 context, we might think about the risks associated with opening schools back up. We risk illness or even death amongst our students, our faculty, and our staff. As a result of this negative frame, we seek to avoid risks in a variety of contexts. We decide to go all on-online rather than have classes in-person. We move our investments into “less risky” portfolios as we get older. We choose to make a new policy on campus prohibiting something due to “risk management.” In each of these cases, taking a risk is viewed as an inherently negative thing. Risks entail the possibility of loss or injury. There are good reasons we humans seek to avoid such things…

“But there are other ways we can define and view risk. Entrepreneurs often talk about the connections between risk and opportunity. One of my favorite axioms is: “a ship is safe in the harbor but that is not what ships are made for.” Risk isn’t always something to be avoided. In fact, life would be a terribly boring place without some risk. Some of the best moments and accomplishments of my life came from taking a deliberate risk—asking my wife to marry me, deciding to drop out of graduate school, and hauling my family (including a 1 and 3 year old) across the world to do a semester study abroad in New Zealand. I wasn’t entirely sure how any of those decisions would go and they all involved the possibility of peril at some level (try being stuck on a plane for 15 hours with a 1-year old). But they also offered up opportunity… 

“The point is that one person’s thrilling engagement with risk and uncertainty can be another person’s worst nightmare. There is a subjective quality to the ways in which we perceive risk and uncertainty. A shy student in class who is considering taking a risk and speaking is going through the same things, physiologically, as another person who may be 1000 feet up a sheer rock face. Elevated heart rate, shallow breathing, sweaty palms, and a dry mouth. A pre-tenure faculty member teaching a course for the first time may be (but not always) less willing to take risks and experiment pedagogically than the tenured professor who has been around the block a few times. There are real and objective reasons why students and faculty may want to avoid risk. But I am not certain that explains the whole of it. Even given objective constraints, there are ways we can see and work with risk in and out of our classrooms that present opportunity for us and our students, not just peril…

“So, allowing that the word “risk” is complex and comes with both negative and positive connotations as well as objective and subjective attributes, here is the way I will frame and define “risky teaching”: Risky teaching is the deliberate and purposeful incorporation of productive uncertainty in learning situations. That uncertainty can be student-centered, teacher-centered, or both. Importantly, productive uncertainty is designed as a means to some educational end (not as an end in itself). Not all uncertainty is productive and, in an educational sense, we want to use uncertainty to reach clearly defined goals and objectives. That is what I mean by productive uncertainty. Risky teaching is not a method, per se, though there are a host of methods that can be employed to create productive states of uncertainty. It is more an orientation to the teaching and learning enterprise—a mode of being rather than a technique to be used in isolation…

“This is a book about teaching and learning through risk and productive uncertainty in higher education. It is a book for faculty, instructors, and staff in higher education who want to try out and experiment with different forms and structures of learning both in and out of the classroom. It is also a book that I believe is particularly relevant in our current zeitgeist. We, and our students, are living through turbulent and uncertain times. While there are elements within higher education that should not necessarily be responsive to the immediate issues and trends of the day, there is also an ethical obligation for colleges and universities to speak to the condition and relevant concerns of our students and society. How can we, as teachers, model being more comfortable with uncertainty, ambiguity, and even adversity? How can we help our students do likewise? Not, to be clear, just to make them and us suffer but because such an orientation to work and life has a greater likelihood to bring about the core human conditions and attributes we care about most: happiness, wellbeing, and flourishing…

“Risky teaching and learning is not easy. By definition, no type of risk is. And it is important to note that we should not strive to live in a perpetual state of risk-taking. We need our moments and days of comfort, of safety, and routine. But the opportunity that exists for us, and our students, to step outside our comfort zones and stretch is so often worth it. Of the risks I have taken in my life that were good ones and for good reasons, I have never regretted any of them—even as some were abject failures. It is, after all, how we grow. And growth, development, maturation, and transformation– these are the deeper aims and values of education. And of that, I am certain.”


Chapter 1: Introduction                                 

Chapter 2: Uncertainty in Higher Education                         

Chapter 3: Students and Uncertainty

Chapter 4: Faculty and Uncertainty  


Chapter 5: The Uncertain Classroom                        

Chapter 6: Uncertainty Beyond the Classroom                     

Chapter 7: Assessment and Uncertainty

Chapter 8: Leadership and Uncertainty         

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