Skip to main content

'Embrace uncertainty: leave students grappling'

A classroom full of confident students worries Andrew Otty. Rather, teachers should foster uncertainty and curiosity

News article image

A classroom full of confident students worries Andrew Otty. Rather, teachers should foster uncertainty and curiosity

“I wasn’t sure the students knew the answers to your questions,” I was once told in lesson-observation feedback. “It was like they were… grappling.” 

“Isn’t the word ‘grapple’ literally in the Ofsted descriptor for outstanding?” I asked. 

It was. And it still is there in the handbook; a brilliant image. I imagine a student hanging from a rockface by his fingertips, flailing for another handhold. 

For me, alarm bells are triggered when I see a classroom full of confident hands thrust up into the air. At that point, you have found the lowest common denominator, removed all challenge, and reinforced that certainty is desirable. But I have a fantasy… I imagine a classroom full of hands raised with thirty different questions; of a culture where curiosity and uncertainty have been kindled into a blaze. 

Certainty isn't desirable

It’s always assumed that the responsibility for questioning lies with the teacher, but wouldn’t it be great if we trained our students to use questions more effectively? Picture the moment as you explain a concept and you’re interrupted by a barrage: 

“What is the counter argument?” 

“Can you give me an example?” 

“How do you feel about this?” 

Teaching A-level politics a few years ago, I began the very first lesson by providing my students with a painting of Magna Carta being sealed and asking them what questions it made them want to ask. Some were straightforward: “What’s written down?” Some showed empathy: “Why is the king depressed?” 

One student wrote: “Is this an English thing?” Possibly questioning the international relevance of Magna Carta, or possibly because he knew I was an English teacher by trade, and wondered if I had become confused about what I was teaching. 

Greater investment in learning

I was able to link those questions to what I was to cover that term: codified and uncodified constitutions. The role of the monarch. The differences between our own constitution and that of our French neighbours. I would have been covering that stuff anyway, because it was on the curriculum, but generating the questions themselves gave the students more investment in the answers. 

If we nurture curiosity and reinforce that not knowing the answer is valuable, we will encourage further questioning. Soon our learners won’t be able to make a cup of tea without wondering how many economic relationships it took to get the tea from leaf to cup, or what happens to the chemistry of water that’s re-boiled, or how they would mathematically express the relationship between the volume in the pot and the angle of pouring. 

Leave students clamouring for more

Our students should be unselfconscious about the deeper questions that motivate their learning: What can I do to make the world a better place? Will we achieve interstellar travel? Can stories help explain how I feel? If our learners don’t have those questions, then something has gone very wrong because somewhere in their past they did. No child stares up at the stars and thinks about Snapchat. 

They need smaller questions too. After every lesson, they should find they have new things they want to ask. It’s a good exercise in reflection for them to write those questions down; it means they actively think about their learning. It’s common for lessons to slowly warm up with a check on prior learning, but our students could force us to hit the ground running if they have already identified what they want to know next and they enter our classroom clamouring for it. 

Andrew Otty leads 16-19 English in an FE college. He is an ambassador for education charity SHINE

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you