Spaces to be uncertain: New initiative calls for conformity to be challenged in the classroom

A new campaign led by University of Sussex academics is urging teachers and pupils to be allowed to embrace uncertainty and explore new ways to engage with knowledge.

TRANSFORM-iN EDUCATION is designed to support teaching staff and pupils to have time and space within the day to break with convention which the campaign’s founders Dr Perpetua Kirby and Dr Rebecca Webb believe is necessary to ensure a creative and critical society where everyone is better able to respond to life situations where the answer is not always clear.

Dr Kirby and Dr Webb are looking to work with schools and other educational institutions, to support them to look beyond conformity within the school day, which they define as only learning what others already know to pass exams. The academics believe that while it is important to value existing knowledge, it is also vital to explore different ways of thinking and doing things.

Dr Webb, a Lecturer in Early Years and Primary Education at the University of Sussex, said: “In our current education system, children become successful by acquiring lots of curriculum knowledge and behaving in particular ways. Teachers, who, by implication, must never ‘not know’ and deviate from always explaining what things mean – this means constantly and continuously working ever harder to fill more efficiently and effectively the pupil with certain knowledge.

“We feel that this a really optimum time to launch this, it feels like there could be a positive reception for new thinking within the sector. Higher education encourages students to engage in transformative ‘disruptive thinking’, it’s certainly something we have put at the heart of what we do at the University of Sussex, and so it’s imperative that schools follow suit. ”

The campaigners say they want to help influence a change of policy on a national level and broaden the current models of education they have observed during in-depth research in schools which they say assumes certainty about the knowledge presented to students with very little time or opportunity for uncertainty.

They warn that there is currently too much emphasis on pupils conforming to the standards of good behaviour of prolonged sitting in silence and working hard to find the correct answer. Their research highlights that being good can camouflage an avoidance of effort for some pupils, including engaging in new and unexpected challenges where the answer is unclear.

Dr Webb and Dr Kirby stress the importance of having higher expectations for pupils – that go beyond simply learning what is in the curriculum – to create new knowledge. This includes sharing opinions, questioning the ways things have always been done, pursuing new questions and experimenting with different approaches. Their studies identify that pupils are already working with uncertainty, but mostly alone without the support of a teacher.

University of Sussex masters pupil, Mariyam Ahmed Toor, identifies the limits of current schooling for her generation. She said: “We don’t understand that it’s okay to feel uncertain and to not have answers all the time. In fact, somewhere along the way, we were taught in schools that uncertainty is bad which is so ironic because life is anything but certain. And so, instead of feeling liberated in our 20s, we feel overwhelmed and unsure because every move we make needs to be grounded in certainty.”

TRANSFORM-iN EDUCATION will bring together academic and non-academic stakeholders, especially teachers, parents, head teachers and students at schools and colleges, to promote more and better opportunities for different ways of experiencing knowledge in school. It’s founders hope to offer a forum to draw on the talents and expertise of teaching staff, who they say do not currently have the opportunities to step outside existing demands within schools.

The campaign will organise and attend events for researchers and teaching professionals to explore the balance of conformity and transformation in schooling, including the tensions in pursuing both goals.

Dr Kirby, an Associate in the School of Education and Social Work at the University of Sussex, said: “Our research has highlighted the need for the space to produce knowledge differently, what we call transformation. We need to listen to how teachers and students want to create spaces that are better suited to the rapidly changing context of the twenty-first century. This demands that we respond in ways not known or even imagined before, whilst not forgetting what we already know.”

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