Uncertainty- why it’s a good thing when it comes to curriculum thinking

We often associate uncertainty with indecisiveness and forget the benefits that uncertainty brings. But in an educational age of evidence-informed practices, uncertainty is a welcome friend, encouraging us to consider the caveats, complexities and nuances of what we ‘know’ to be true.

In my career thus far, I’ve had the privilege of working with a number of skilled curriculum and senior leaders and (anecdotally speaking) a clear commonality that has emerged is their continual uncertainty about ‘getting the curriculum right.’ The constant questioning of ‘is this working?’ and ‘is this the right approach for our context and our pupils?’ has enabled them to have more impact in their work.

This isn’t an easy balance for these leaders to strike. On the one hand they derive value in constantly questioning the implementation and impact of their curriculum. And on the other hand, they need to implement with enough certainty to ensure those they lead, in turn, implement with fidelity. If leaders are so uncertain about a given approach, it begs the question ‘why should we do this then?’

The way I consider this balance has changed over time (and will no doubt evolve going forward!) For me, the answer comes back to the culture within a school. Being uncertain can be seen and modelled as:

-indecisiveness

-inaction

-inertia

Or it can be seen and modelled as:

-understanding complexity

-recognising that an evidence based approach may look different ‘on the ground’ and therefore implementation may need to be tweaked over time

-continual learning for everyone at ALL levels

So what does this mean for school leaders? I argue that there are very real benefits in:

-preempting how an approach might go wrong and mitigating against this

-reviewing implementation regularly as a collective staff to consider ‘how well is this working? What impact is this having (if any and being actively avoidant of the sunk-cost fallacy)?

-creating a culture where nothing is certain and we are operating on ‘best bets’ and a responsive approach to implementation.

-Accepting that there is an area of grey that makes school improvement work both challenging and endlessly rewarding in equal measure.

It’s very difficult, when you have a very set mental model, to welcome the prospect of being uncertain. And as a leader, it can be downright terrifying! But if we fail to recognise the benefits of uncertainty and how it continually stress tests our thinking, approaches to pedagogy and curriculum development, we may become stagnant in our thinking and inadvertently negatively impact pupil outcomes.

Here’s some questions we might ask ourselves about curricular within our individual context:

1. Is our intended curriculum what we see on the ground day to day? If not, why? If yes, how do we take this to the next level?

2. I wonder if our approaches to teaching ‘insert subject here’ are lending themselves to delivering our intended curricular to ensure a change in long-term memory for our pupils?

3. How is the delivery of ‘insert subject here’ being quality assured and how is this feedback actioned to strengthen delivery over time? Are we certain we know what good looks like?

4. Is this the right way to structure our curriculum? Is the architecture of the curriculum rooted in the best bets from cog sci? Are we certain we are accurate in our understanding of these ‘best bets’?

5. Are we clear on what successful end points look like at the end of year ___? How can we exemplify these so there are clear goalposts for teachers and for pupils? Are we certain there is a shared understanding of this?

Simply put, uncertainty has a very bad reputation (particularly for those in leadership positions!) However, in my very humble opinion, I think it plays an important role in curriculum thinking, in the development of our individual professional practice and the evolution of evidence-informed approaches.

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