Equipping students to deal with uncertainty

Many in the educational sector, including myself, have contemplated the value of the information we’re imparting on students over the past year. As we migrated to primarily online settings in many places, we had to revisit curricular ideas, course formats and plans, and learning goals and outcomes for our students. I personally have been surprised how well small and individual coursework has been received by students, and feel the highly tailored and personalized settings and interactions to be ideal for fluidly reacting to the many external challenges and pressures faced by students. Together we have, regardless of course content, helped each other navigate turbulent times, filled with uncertainty.  

How do we better-equip ourselves and our students or mentees to deal with adversity and uncertain environments? No one has the right answer yet, it seems, but I came across two recent short essays which helped me start sharpening the way I’m asking myself these questions and thinking towards the future. 

Flateby, T. L. & Rose, T.A. (2021). From College to Career Success: How Educators and Employers Talk about Skills. https://www.aacu.org/blog/college-career-success-how-educators-and-employers-talk-about-skills

Even as we make curricula to non-discipline-specific learning outcomes for graduates such as the Association for American College and University’s VALUE (Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education) rubrics, are we sure the outcomes we in academia create align to the expectations of the places graduates will work? Flateby and Rose (2021) describe early findings from a broader College to Career project, a small survey of line managers, which highlight gaps in graduates’ ability to think critically and communicate effectively:

Several managers observed that graduates need more experience exercising critical thinking skills throughout the curriculum and in more complex situations. Newer graduates often look for the “right” answer, the managers said, and provide employers with what they think they want to hear. Often, new graduates do not know how to proceed without direction.

For written communication, the line managers reported that newer graduates typically communicate in writing as though they are texting. Most of the written communication issues they identified pertained to a lack of audience awareness.

In response, Flateby and Rose suggest several immediate responses educators might take to address these issues in their assignments. 

But while assessing audience in writing may be easier to incorporate into assignments, “critical thinking” remains, despite an articulated VALUE rubric, a rather nebulous concept. 

Burke, T. (2021). An Unconvincing Argument for the Liberal Arts: We say we prepare students for undefined futures. Are they better for it? https://www.chronicle.com/article/an-unconvincing-argument-for-the-liberal-arts (NOTE: while this essay is freely-available, it is behind a “data wall” and one must provide one’s contact information to view it). 

Burke discusses how hard it is to put our educational fingers on what we are guiding our students to think critically about, particularly in uncertain times:

Our assumptions about how to teach to uncertainty are mostly unexplored, and the empirical evidence of whether we do so successfully is debatable. To the degree that we are successful, we don’t really know why. Arguably, the capacity to navigate uncertainty has less to do with student learning than with the social capital and economic resources available to our graduates. This is where “preparation for uncertainty” lives alongside other reassuring concepts like “resilience,” “emotional intelligence,” or “grit.” These concepts may not be measuring teachable skills or habits of mind so much as access to money and social networks. Dealing with rapidly changing conditions is much easier if your parents can help with the rent or if you know someone who can get you in the door in a new line of work after your current gig closes down.

Many of us would answer “critical thinking” (which may be an equally leaky terminological boat). We’d likely assert that critical thinking suffuses our institutions in such a way that their graduates learn to view the world around them skeptically and provisionally, and that this in turn prepares them to adapt rapidly to changing economic and social conditions (and to help lead or direct processes of change for others). The major problem with this answer is that any curricular structure, any pedagogy, can likely and perhaps justifiably claim to be producing critical thinking and hence to be preparation for uncertainty. It’s so truistic and underspecified that it’s hard to be satisfied with it as an answer. Possibly, we could decompose “critical thinking” to far more specific epistemological and methodological commitments in various academic disciplines: the scientific method, thought experiments, close reading, etc., and get a better account of how to teach skepticism, provisional truth-making, and so on. Possibly.

Read Burke’s concluding thoughts about this topic, and read them again, particularly the entire last paragraph of his essay. His contemplation don’t provide a clear pathway towards the future, but they do crystalize some thoughts many of us in the educational sector have been considering these past few months:

Inhabiting the foundational uncertainty of the universe is one of the deepest challenges of human life. If we have insight into that, good. If we don’t, let’s work to develop that insight. But we mustn’t confuse this work with the drive to normalize the insecurity of our present moment. Our educational job there is different: We must teach our students to reject that project entirely.

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