Uncertainty vs Certainty

Is there room for uncertainty in the Dalton Study? I believe there is, and there should be. However, too much uncertainty can be frustrating for some of Ascham’s students. Pressured by the coming Tuesday morning Assignment deadline or the demands of an upcoming assessment or the HSC looming like a summer thundercloud, most of our students want complete, speedy answers and clear guidance. Uncertainty can lead to fear: fear can lead to anxiety. Teachers, keen to be helpful, usually provide comprehensive answers quickly so stresses are alleviated. (I remember hearing, years ago, that six seconds is the average time a teacher waits between posing a question and answering it if a student hasn’t responded!) Is this a good thing? For just how long should a teacher leave a student in a state of contemplation, or even, dare I say it, bewilderment? That is a significant question.

We live in a time of huge uncertainty. There are constant questions everywhere we look… Will China and the USA begin WWIII? Will the next dimension to Coronavirus be worse than what we now have? Will the word ‘slay’ fall out of fashion with students by the end of 2022? Who knows?

We have just emerged from two unfathomable, rocky years. Surely, all that Ascham’s students deserve right now is predictability, security. Oddly, this contemplation on uncertainty brings to mind Zen Buddhism and its students asking questions of their masters, only to be met with more rhetorical questions, silence or students being sent away to rethink their position on the koan given to them. What is one to take away from this? That life is always a struggle, with ignorance and suffering natural side effects? Is this fair?

I asked a handful of Ascham’s students, from Years 10 through to 12, whether they thought the Study was a place for uncertainty. They all said a degree of uncertainty and waiting for answers from teachers in English was tolerable because the subject matter was often ambiguous. They didn’t mind an English teacher taking their time to explain or clarify something. They all thought waiting a long time for answers in other subjects such as Mathematics would be very frustrating. When a few students were asked about this further, they said they’d then doubt their teacher’s abilities, and their own, and they’d worry about their results.

Maybe, Ascham’s teachers should provide detailed answers speedily. Perhaps not directly after the student’s question is expressed, but as soon as possible, that day. It is easy to feel the Dalton Study should be a place of absolutes, so students are ‘assured of certain certainties’, to quote the immortal modernist poet TS Eliot.

Or maybe, for uncertain times, teachers and students need more of a pause, a time of contemplation without easy solutions. Maybe, we need to just accept that uncertainty is everything and we can never control or predict the future no matter how hard we try. Perhaps this will make students improvise more, be open to rapid change, and in turn, cope better when life seems rudderless. This ability to deal with what comes from leftfield just might help them thrive at university, and life beyond.

There will always be unpredictability. All we can do is keep our minds focused on the moment, which is all we ever have. As German social psychoanalyst and humanist philosopher Erich Fromm once said: ‘The quest for certainty blocks the search for meaning.’

When finishing writing this piece, a Year 11 student came in late to my Study. I asked them where they’d been. With a slight smile, they replied, ‘Following the wind’.

This response was a little concerning, but also strangely, beautifully apt.

Lorne Johnson | English Teacher

1 Nov 2022

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