Embrace uncertainty in and across communities of practice to promote learning and innovation

Uncertainty is an inevitable feature of collaborative complex problem-solving efforts. Though uncomfortable, the presence of uncertainty in “learning communities” may facilitate productive collaboration and learning if managed supportively by individuals and by peers in the community.  Jordan and McDaniel (2014) urge leaders in education to pay attention to uncertainty in the context of youth collaboration, as an important element in instructional design and facilitating problem-solving activities (including action research) among peers.  They write “that when uncertainty is experienced and expressed in conjunction with peer support, then uncertainty generates a platform for learning. This is because as these activities come together in the same space, students find themselves engaged in complex patterns of social interaction that facilitate learning: explaining, critiquing, elaborating, and generating multiple representations and methods” (Jordan & Mcdaniel, 2014, p. 34).


Communities of practice engaged in “ambiguous and intractably complex contexts,” which, in the study the authors conducted, refer to controlled groupings of 5th grade students focused on a cross-disciplinary engineering based project, may in fact benefit from uncertainty.  Pushing back against the presupposition that uncertainty ought to be prevented or that deliberative processes ought to be shielded from its presence to make way for a successful learning experience, Jordan and McDaniel put forth that not only may uncertainty “foster innovation and promote learning,” “generating uncertainty can facilitate the reorganization of current beliefs, values and conceptions” (Jordan & Mcdaniel, 2014, p. 4).  How the roles within communities of practices negotiate uncertainties and wrestle with the tension between “competences” and “experiences” both within and across the boundaries, may have important implications.  “Innovative learning” may require a “divergence” of experiences and competences, Wenger (2000) postulates; this involves “active boundary processes” that, by nature, involve uncertainty.


As a graduate student, I participated on a National Science Foundation grant-funded project implemented by the Decision Center for a Desert City (DCDC), an institute made possible by the Decision Making Under Uncertainty initiative.  My work focused on an interactive model, WaterSim in the Decision Theater, which “was analyzed as a hybrid boundary object embedded within a boundary organization designed to link science and policy to improve environmental decision-making under conditions of uncertainty” (White, Wutich, Larson, Gober, Lant, Senneville, 2010, p. 230).  We developed a conceptual framework for analyzing WaterSim’s utility as a decision support tool, or boundary object, on the basis of its credibility, saliency, and legitimacy to stakeholders.


Relevant “boundaries,” in this case, are at the interfaces of the knowledges and ways of knowing within the scientific community and among policy makers across different scales.  Uncertainty, in the discourse of decision-making for sustainability is manageable only to the degree leaders acknowledge and, ultimately, embrace uncertainty as integral to planning for sustainability.  (A favorable articulation of “sustainability” is made by Dr. Charles Redman, Founding Director and Professor, School of Sustainability: “Sustainability is an awareness of the connectivity of the world and the implications of our actions. It is finding solutions through innovative approaches, expanding future options by practicing environmental stewardship, building governance institutions that continually learn, and instilling values that promote justice” [http://schoolofsustainability.asu.edu/about/what-is-sustainability.php]).


In a sense, the intent of WaterSim is as a “boundary object,” involved in active boundary management, to better connect the policy and science communities of practice, e.g. local water managers and academic water scientists.  Both communities are working under conditions of uncertainty – e.g. fluctuating budgets, a receding water table, climatic change, and rapid urbanization’s local landscape and population transformation – but must converge as the production of knowledge in one community becomes relevant and important to the action another community must and is obligated to take.  Boundary objects, or “artifacts (things, tools, terms, representations, etc.),” are among the ways Wenger (2000) proposes the boundaries of communities of practice can be “bridged” for “the coherent functioning of social learning systems” (23).  “Conceptualizing collaborative problem solving as a process of negotiating uncertainties [and “recogniz[ing] the importance of interdependencies] can help [leaders] shape tasks and relational contexts to facilitate learning,” conclude Jordan and McDaniel (2014, p. 36).  This lesson is salient for constructing contexts supportive of decision-making for sustainability, as well as for complex collaborative cross-curricular projects in grade school.


Jordan, M. E., & Mcdaniel, R. R. (2014). Managing uncertainty during collaborative problem solving in elementary school teams: The role of peer influence in robotics engineering activity. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 00, 1–47.

Wenger, E. (2000). Communities of practice and social learning systems. Organization, 7(2), 225–246. doi:10.1177/135050840072002

White, D. D., Wutich, A., Larson, K. L., Gober, P., Lant, T., & Senneville, C. (2010). Credibility, salience, and legitimacy of boundary objects: water managers’ assessment of a simulation model in an immersive decision theater. Science & Public Policy (SPP), 37(3), 219-232. doi:10.3152/030234210X497726

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