Why we need to embrace ignorance and learn to love uncertainty

Why we need to embrace ignorance and learn to love uncertainty

The opening chapter of my book Intelligent Accountability is an attempt to clear the way of objections and obstacles in order to create the conditions for teachers to thrive. As such, I argue that schools are incredibly complex institutions where it is impossible for school leaders to have certain knowledge of the best courses of action or the results of the decisions they make. This being the case, I suggest that the only reasonable alternative is to act with tentativity and humility.

For all school leaders, one of the following option will be true:

  • You believe you know everything you need to know.
  • You hope you know everything you need to know.
  • You pretend you know everything you need to know.
  • You know you’re morally right regardless of any evidence to the contrary.
  • You admit you don’t know everything you need to know.

Believing you know everything – even at some instinctive gut level – is deluded; hoping you know everything (or that someone else does) is foolish; pretending to know everything is dishonest. The worst of all options is to be so immune to facts, reason or criticism that you insulate yourself from reality. The only acceptable option is to admit that you don’t know everything, but there are systemic pressures that make it hard for school leaders to admit their ignorance. “I don’t know” tends to go down poorly with governors, teachers, parents and students alike.

There are two ways out of this bind. First, accept that certainty is likely to lead to poor decision making. When we’re certain we stop thinking. After all, why would we continue to think about a problem when we’re already sure we know the answer? This tends to result in seeing whatever we want to expect to see and failing to notice new or surprising opportunities. Embracing uncertainty doesn’t mean you should endlessly prevaricate, instead it means accepting that decisions are always imperfect, made with incomplete understanding and should be subject to change when additional information comes along.

Second, an effective school leader will seek out sources of collective intelligence. In order to allow those around you to give their opinions honestly, you must encourage professional scepticism. This is a mindset which is willing to accept new ideas but will always be prepared to asking critical, searching questions. All too often, the prevailing culture in schools is one which discourages this kind of professionalism, but the rewards of allowing others to pose hard questions and point out potential mistakes is that you’re far less likely to go too far astray.

With these thoughts in mind, your department, school or trust is perhaps ready to explore what it means to operate a surplus model of school improvement.

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