Uncertainties at Camp

This week I am blogging from Prescott, Arizona: land of cool breezes, tall pines, and intermittent wireless. Each year I have the amazing opportunity to act as dean for the 3rd through 6th graders at our church’s week-long camp. It is so much fun to see these desert kids experience squirrels and stars and nature for the first time. One of the biggest things I run into each year is helping kids learn how to work together. (And, yes, I am thankful when this is the biggest problem!) The kids aren’t used to solving problems on their own, or having to work with people they don’t know very well – especially when there isn’t a teacher walking around to guide every step. It is really fun to watch them realize that there are a lot of ways to solve problems. Sometimes there’s not a “right” or “wrong” way – they just need to find a solution.

So reading Jordan’s and McDaniels’s (2014) “Managing Uncertainty During Collaborative Problem Solving in Elementary School Teams : The Role of Peer Influence in Robotics Engineering Activity” was really timely!

In this article, Jordan and McDaniel explore how students display, react to, and resolve uncertainty in themselves and others, especially in situations where there aren’t right/wrong answers. They defined uncertainty as any time a student expressed doubt, was unsure of something, or wondered about something. They specifically watched how students express uncertainty to their peers, rather than to a teacher. They found that there tended to be two types of uncertainty: “content uncertainty (pertaining to the problem to be solved) and relational uncertainty (pertaining to interactional challenges and opportunities, including issues of identity related to one’s self and one’s partners)” (Jordan & Mcdaniel, 2014, p. 8).

In cataloging peer responses, Jordan and McDonald found that peers tended to respond in either a supportive or unsupportive way. When peers acknowledged their own uncertainties about the same question or were able to answer the question, it was considered supportive. Other times, peers made fun of the student expressing uncertainty or ignored the question. These were considered unsupportive, which makes sense!
With this in mind, I have been observing how students solve problems at camp. Sometimes these occur during group activities led by a leader. More often than not, though, I hear social uncertainties happening during unstructured times (i.e. free time, meals, etc).
One of the greatest parts of camp is trying new things and making new friends. But for kiddos who have difficulty building relationships, it’s often one of the most troubling parts. Every year there are students like Charlie* and Luis – best friends since forever. Another student, Mark, is also in their group. He is new to church and has really hit it off with Charlie. Yay! Except that Luis doesn’t make friends as easily, and has trouble handling more than one friend at a time. He is very uncertain as to his place in this new relationship dynamic. At times, he expresses himself quite plainly. He asks Charlie if they are still friends, or says to Mark, “I don’t like it that you’re at camp; you stole my best friend.” Inappropriate? Probably. But a pretty clear indication that he is uncertain of his part in the dynamic!

Other times it seems to be more subtle. Luis acts out more than usual, or he says passive aggressive things against Charlie and Mark during group discussions. Less direct, but as I considered “uncertainties,” it seems just as clear to me.

Keeping this idea in mind has helped me to better respond to these group dynamics. There are times that Mark and Charlie are actually really supportive – they want Luis to hang out with them (Luis just has a hard time with two people). Other times, especially as we move later into the week, they are getting more annoyed so their responses are less supportive. They are ignoring Luis or responding with unkind words.

I have found it helpful to reinforce their supportive responses when I hear them. And when I hear their not-so-supportive responses, I can suggest other ways they could be more kind. I have also been able to help identify with Luis why he might be acting this way. Not because he’s mad at Charlie, but because he’s just not sure what this means for his and Charlie’s friendship after camp. When I asked if that might be part of it, his eyes lit up and I could almost see the lightbulb go off. It opened a whole new conversation, and has really helped him in times of subsequent uncertainty.

At the end of their article, Jordan and McDaniel suggest some next steps to consider, and they were right in line with my questions as I was reading. I wondered if anyone has ever tried to specifically teach kids how to express and recognize uncertainties or how to handle it when they recognize it in someone else. It sounds like there have been some studies looking at individual pieces, but there hasn’t been one to see if teaching the whole “big picture” would be helpful in the long run.

In the short term, though, even just helping Luis recognize it is starting to help his relationship with Charlie and Mark!

*Names have been changed

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(2002), 1–47.

Managing Uncertainty – Mildly

In the article, Managing uncertainty during collaborative problem solving in elementary school teams : The role of peer influence in robotics engineering activity, the authors, Jordan & McDaniel, (in press) state that humans experience uncertainty on a regularly occurring basis. Isn’t that the truth! According to the authors, managing uncertainty means, “behaviors an individual engages in to enable action in the face of uncertainty” (p. 5). Ever since I was accepted into the EdD program, I’ve been mildly managing the uncertainty.

I had an “aha” moment when reading the article, specifically when reading about the findings identified when group members’ attempts to manage task and relational uncertainty. Listed below is a breakdown of my observation on the socially supportive peer response theory and equating it to the first night of class in the EdD program.

Socially Supportive Peer Responses First Night of Class in EdD Program
“Experience the same uncertainty and join in a shared strategy to address it” (p. 18). We were lucky enough to have two guest speakers visit the classroom. These speakers were students that are currently in the EdD program transitioning into their third year.Initially, the questions were of a basic nature and then the conversation turned so that the speakers were fully addressing the cohorts fears about balance and being able to manage life/work/school. One of the speakers indicated that her class had a mantra that helped them feel that they were all in it together – thus, joining in a shared strategy to address it. 
“Not share an uncertainty but help a group member address his or her uncertainty by arguing, challenging, explaining, or offering information” (p. 18). I believe there were students in the cohort that had full confidence in themselves as a scholar. However, the authors state, “For this peer response to occur, a responder had to believe the uncertainty being expressed by his or her peer was at a minimum legitimate, warranted, or reasonable” (p. 20).When the conversation and questions focused on how we can balance school and a personal life, while working full time, I believe that I heard a collective sigh when our speakers said that if they could do it, so could we. 
“Not initially share the uncertainty, listen, become uncertain, and assist in addressing it” (p. 18). When I received my acceptance letter into the EdD program, I felt like I was on top of the world. I was confident that I could conquer any assignment or project that was thrown my way. Then reality set in. My uncertainty was starting to mount even before the first night of class.When our guest speakers were seeking questions, I was the person in the back row that kept raising her hand. I believe the conversation regarding the rigor of the program may have ignited some doubt in some students who may not have been initially feeling uncertain. However, because everyone was engaged in the conversation, I believe that assisted in the management of the uncertainty and settled anxiety in the group as a whole.

The EdD program at Arizona State University has established itself as academically challenging. Additionally, to be accepted into the program, one has to possess a high degree of academic abilities. A person would guess that the students in the EdD program are of relatively high intelligence and maturity, however on that first night of class some may have felt like they were in the fifth grade again. The collective behaviors exhibited in class were the actions necessary to propel us past our fears, in the face of uncertainty, to achieve our goals.


Jordan, M. E. & McDaniel, R. (in press). Managing uncertainty during collaborative problem
solving in elementary school teams: The role of peer influence in robotics engineering
activity. Journal of the Learning Sciences. doi: 10.1080/10508406.2014.896254