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Seven Resolutions for Responding Creatively to Uncertainty in the Classroom

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The arrival of each new year is often met with some level of uncertainty. Given so many impending changes in 2017, it may feel like the coming year is more uncertain than ever. Although uncertainty can raise concerns and even fears, it also presents us with opportunities to make productive changes in our thoughts and actions. In short, uncertainty represents an opportunity for creative expression.

As educators, we can help our students develop their capacity to respond more creatively to uncertainty by making a few slight adjustments in our daily teaching practices. The following “mini-resolutions” are based on my work supporting teachers who are interested in cultivating creativity in their classrooms.

1. Establish creative openings.

Make slight adjustments to your existing lessons that invite students to experience semi-structured uncertainty. This involves creating opportunities for students to share and test out their unique ideas and perspectives while still meeting the academic goals of a particular assignment or activity.

When asking students to solve a math story problem, for instance, ask them to not only solve the problem accurately but to also come up with as many ways as possible to solve it and share different approaches with one another. When reading a story, have students demonstrate their comprehension of what was written and reimagine the story by changing the ending or removing a character.

In science, have students learn from a demonstration of an experiment and modify the design and predict any changes. Teaching about a historical event? Have students reimagine it and discuss how such changes might have altered the course of history.

2. Put students’ academic learning to creative use.

Help students recognize how content knowledge is necessary for responding creatively to uncertainty and can be put to use in new and meaningful ways.

This can involve everything from using subject-matter knowledge to address hypothetical and even fantastical situations (How might students use their knowledge of area and perimeter to design a strategy for containing a zombie outbreak?) to addressing actual problems or situations facing young people and their communities (In what ways could they design a rooftop garden to benefit a local food shelter?).

3. Provide honest, supportive feedback.

Remind students to anchor their unique ideas and perspectives to the task at hand (How might this connect to the story we just read?); encourage them to put their own unique twist on an idea or product (Can you come up with your own way of solving this?); and help them to decide whether creative thought and action is necessary or worth the risk for a specific task (Is this the right time or place to take creative action?).

4. Provide examples of domain-specific creative responses.

Help young people recognize what it takes to move from creative ideas to creative accomplishments. You can do this by including biographies of historical figures who have responded creatively to ill-defined problems in various subject areas. You can also invite local professionals to visit your classroom and share examples of the kinds of subject-matter knowledge they have used to develop creative solutions to complex problems in their line of work.

Doing so will help illustrate that creative responses to uncertainty do not come from a generic “creativity skill” that only certain people possess, but rather require (among other things) deep knowledge, social supports, hard work, sensible risk-taking, the ability to overcome setbacks, and an unshakeable sense of possibility thinking.

5. Provide opportunities for students to productively struggle with uncertainty.

In some cases, we over-structure students’ experiences and thereby remove opportunities for them to creatively respond to uncertainty. In other cases, we under-structure students’ experiences and generate unnecessary frustration, lack of clarity, and confusion.

How might you strike a better balance in the experiences you provide for your students? Are there some aspects of your lessons that might be over-structured (you provide all the examples of applying something learned rather than letting students come up with some of their own) or under-structured (your guidelines for how to participate in an activity are unclear)?

6. Provide opportunities for students to address uncertainty in their lives, schools, and communities.

This involves the following steps:

  • Identify and address complex problems facing students, their peers, and their community. (“The kind of bullying we are facing in our school is very subtle and often goes unnoticed by teachers and adults.”)
  • Recognize when new thinking or action is—and is not—needed. (“Our current approach to addressing bullying is working for some cases, but not others.”)
  • Engage in possibility thinking to generate creative solutions. (“What’s going on here that we may not be seeing? What are some different ways of viewing this situation?”)
  • Test out the viability of seemingly promising ideas and make adjustments. ("What adjustments can we make to address the cases where it doesn’t work?”)

7. Start with yourself.

Most importantly, if we want students to approach the uncertainty they face with a spirit of possibility thinking and take the risks necessary to respond creatively, then we need to lead the way by doing so ourselves.

Providing young people with opportunities to learn how to productively respond to uncertainty is not something that requires making radical changes to our existing teaching practices. It also does not require trying to magically add more time to an already overflowing plate of curricular responsibilities. Rather, it requires using our time a bit differently, making some slight adjustments in how we approach our teaching, and viewing uncertainty as a creative opportunity.

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