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Post date: Tuesday, 14 December 2021

Teaching is both complex and complicated: why uncertainty is unavoidable

Authored by Kaihautū Rangahau | Chief Researcher Rosemary Hipkins

When I wrote the first blog post in this series about uncertainty, I had students in mind. I set out to explore the challenge of helping students learn to “be” in uncertainty, given the volatile, complex, uncertain, ambiguous (VUCA) times we are living through. What emerged, however, was a clear signal that supporting teachers to be more comfortable with uncertainty might be a useful starting point for fostering learning experiences that support students to sit with uncertainty, and to know that it's OK to do so. This second post develops that proposition.

This time I’m starting with a paper that describes a range of sources of uncertainty for beginning teachers as they learn to navigate the complexities of the classroom (Floden & Buchman, 1993). As you read my summary, ask yourself to what extent the dilemmas apply to all teachers, not just those starting out on their careers:

  • Beginning teachers are confronted with the idea of misconceptions, and the associated possibility that students will not take the meaning they intend from the learning experiences they design.
  • No test can be perfectly reliable and valid. It is not possible to be certain that assessment results reflect the true state of a student’s learning. It can be confronting for beginning teachers to realise that designing assessment tasks is not straightforward, and that inferences from assessments need to be made with care.  
  • When learning is successful, it is never possible to be certain about the extent to which this is a direct consequence of the teacher’s efforts. Students’ responses will be affected by the contexts in which they live, of which school is only one. This realisation can be very stressful for beginning teachers, especially when their success is judged on the basis of observations made while they are teaching.
  • Every teacher faces choices of content, emphasis, approach, timing and so on. Some of these choices apply across topics (e.g., how much emphasis to place on relationships amongst concepts) and some are specific to a topic or context. Learning how to make these choices is a source of considerable uncertainty, but this can ease over time as personal practice becomes established.   
  • Beginning teachers are confronted with their own imperfect understanding of the subject matter they must teach. Further study will help, but it will never bring certainty because the more deeply a teacher gets to know an area, the more aware they become of knowledge disputes and uncertainties in their field.   

While these uncertainties may seem overwhelming at first, Floden and Buchman suggest that it is important to support beginning teachers to live with them, learn from them, and ultimately accept that they are integral to the complexity of teaching as a professional activity. Teachers who seek too much certainty, they say, risk “rigidity and narrowness in classroom life, rather than flexibility and breadth” (p.377).

How many of these sources of uncertainty resonated for you?  Jordan, Kleinsasser and Roe (2014) draw on their personal experiences as both teachers and teacher educators to describe teaching as both complicated and complex for all teachers, regardless of the stage of their career:

  • Teaching is complicated because teachers must make choices from among viable alternatives that are value-laden. These include selecting information to use in the classroom, within the limits of their own knowledge, given their sense of whether the knowledge available to them is trustworthy or contradictory, insufficient or overwhelming, and so on. They most also try to meet increasing demands to foster children’s social, emotional and cognitive development, which confronts them with choices that might include how to work around time constraints, and how to do something new or unfamiliar.  
  • Teaching is complex because the dynamics of social interactions can never be fully predicted. For example, it is impossible to fully anticipate how students will respond to instructions or attempts to change their learning trajectories, how their peers, parents or other adults will respond to interactions, and so on. Sometimes teachers are left with uncertainty about “what happened, why it happened, how they should respond, or even what response options are available” (p.328)

There is some overlap between these two sets of ideas. I included both to give a sense of just how deeply uncertainty is baked into a teacher’s work, no matter how experienced they are. So many uncomfortable moments came to mind for me when reading these two papers. I wish I had had a mentor early in my career who reassured me that it was OK to be uncertain, and that from such experiences professional and personal growth might emerge.

As an aside, I found it interesting that Jordan et. al described teaching as both complex and complicated. One of the clear themes in my recently published book Teaching for Complex Systems Thinking, is that deeply entrenched habits of either/or thinking get in the way of developing complex systems thinking. By contrast, both/and ways of thinking help bring complexity into clearer view. Yet I positioned complicated and complex systems as an either/or binary, even while being clear that we need to think about classroom action as a complex system! That edge of uncertainty never goes away when we aim to keep growing professionally.

As if all that uncertainty in ‘normal times’ was not enough, I’ve just read a really pertinent blog post that highlights the additional uncertainties thrown up by the extraordinary events generated by the COVID 19 pandemic. It draws on this formula: high social complexity + low form predictability = stress reactive behaviours. Here’s the expanded explanation: 

High social complexity (lack of clarity around the social expectations, cultural norms, and how to navigate the expected social realities of a situation) + low form predictability (confusion about what is going to happen moment to moment, day to day, week to week) = stress reactive behaviors (fight-flight-flock-freeze-appease or signs that the amygdala, the lizard brain, has taken control and the prefrontal cortex—the part that learns and plans and creates—isn’t fully engaged).

Using this formula, Laura Thomas argues that brains can only take so much. Rather than pushing more content and new initiatives in times of high uncertainty, teachers and administrators should consider scaling back and waiting for more settled times to introduce new initiatives. No doubt this plea will resonate with many readers who are heading into the holiday break stressed, tired, and wondering what new challenges might be around the corner. In my first post in 2022 my plan is to pick up on her recommendations, and those of the others cited in this post, to consider ways to manage complexity at levels of uncertainty that teachers can more comfortably live with.


Floden, R. & Buchmann, M. (1993). Between routines and anarchy: Preparing teachers for uncertainty. Oxford Review of Education, 19(3), 373-382.

Jordan, M., Kleinsasser, R. & Roe, M. (2014). Cautionary tales: Teaching, accountability, and assessment. The Education Forum, 78(3), 323-337.

Thomas, L. (2021). Teachers (and Students) Can Only Take So Much. Edutopia Blog, December 6, 2021.

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