“I don’t know”: being certain about uncertainty.

‘Confusion is not an ignoble condition.’

Brian Friel, Translations.

I recently read an paper on about the persistence of ‘brain myths’, even among those trained in neurology, by Adrian Furnham. This included several myths about child development and learning. It’s well worth being aware of current research on this field, including those widely-held assumptions which are not supported by evidence. The myths and misconceptions explored in the study were derived from the books Great Myths of the Brain by Christian Jarrett and Great Myths of Brain Development by Stephen Hupp & Jeremy Jewell. Some of the more prevalent included:

  • Adults can usually tell if a child is lying
  • Girls are more likely to have clinical depression than boys
  • Dyslexia’s defining feature is letter reversal
  • Right-brained people are more creative than left-brained people
  • The brain is essentially a computer
  • We only use 10% of our brains

The proportion of participants believing these misconceptions to be true was independent of age, gender and education, including education in psychology. This tendency is therefore something that educators clearly need to be aware of, irrespective of experience or training. I know that I have a tendency to think that I can tell when someone is telling porkies, even when I’ve read the research contradicts this belief.

Are we happier to be wrong than to be uncertain?

One other thing that struck me about the study was the comment by the authors that participants were clearly reluctant to respond ‘don’t know’ in answer to questions, preferring instead to chose a response from the other available options (Definitely True, Probably True, Probably False, Definitely False). The participants in the study may have not wanted to appear ignorant of the topic in question, even if the alternative is to risk being wrong, or they may have been trying to ‘help’ the researchers to collect positive results by opting for a definite answer.

I wonder if we have a tendency to do that outside of the confines of psychology experiments? How often on Edutwitter do we see someone tweet “Interesting question. You know, I’m really not sure”? Most contributions, it seems to me, are firm statements of position in a debate and declarations of certainty.

Confidence in Uncertainty

I’d like to suggest that we we should be more confident about being uncertain. There Are three main reasons for this:

1. I think being comfortable with uncertainty is entirely consistent with reflective pedagogy. If we were certain of everything, then we wouldn’t ever need to ask questions, but we grow as teachers by asking ourselves, ‘How can I improve that?’, ‘Next time I teach that, how can I make it better?’, or ‘Several pupils dropped marks on that question, how can I address that?’. In striving to improve in this way, we acknowledge that accepting that we don’t know it all helps us to become better teachers.

2. We will become better models for our students. This is also something we encourage in our students: to question, try things out and experiment. If we expect these learning behaviours from them, it makes sense for us to model them in our own professional learning. When I first trained as a teacher, I used to worry that a student would ask a question I couldn’t answer. I later came to realise that I didn’t always have to be the ‘expert’, and later still that when they did, this was a fantastic opportunity to model learning. I should say that to foster this type of ‘don’t know’, as a spur to further investigation, we have to create an safe atmosphere of trust where students won’t feel they have to give the ‘don’t knows’ that really means ‘I’m afraid of looking silly / getting it wrong’.

3. We will become better informed and so make better decisions. A danger of being reluctant to say we don’t know is that we are more likely to make mistakes, as as the participants frequently did in the study mentioned above. Being able to say we don’t know when we are unsure, makes us less susceptible to social influence and prompts us to gather more information. In terms of debate, a willingness to be open to ideas, including minority views, enables us to make better decisions, whether or not we come to accept those views.

So, if you see me expressing uncertainty, on Twitter or elsewhere, please bear with me: I just think the path to knowing is sometimes through admitting that I am unsure.

Image: Max Pixel http://maxpixel.freegreatpicture.com/Matter-Note-Duplicate-Request-Question-Mark-2110767

Other posts on psychology and teaching: https://casebyscasebook.wordpress.com/category/psychology/