Uncertainty is a good thing

Just so everyone has a clear sense of what is meant by uncertainty, Jordan and McDaniel (in press), define it as “an individual’s subjective experience of doubting, being unsure, or wondering about how the future will unfold, what the present means, or how to interpret the past” (p. 3). As a reading teacher, this is a topic that I am particularly interested in, as my students undoubtedly have felt uncertain while learning how to read. I’m sure they have thought about which phonetic sound represents the letter of the alphabet that is front of them. If they are an older student, they are likely confused as they attempt reading a complex novel or article. In transitioning to my role as a literacy coach next year, I think about how I will soon have to give advice and tips to teachers about how to manage their students’ uncertainty within the context of a literacy classroom. So, as you can see, I was hopeful that this article would give me some insights as to how to do that.

The authors mentioned that the research out there points out that individuals deal with uncertainty through communication and the responses given by peers heavily impact one’s ability to deal with uncertainty in the future (Jordan & McDaniel, in press). In reflecting upon my own students, as many of them are struggling readers, I think about how they often rely on peers to help them when they do not know a concept. However, often times, the students that they are asking for help from also are uncertain. This caused me to ask the following questions: Does this mean that students will be content in remaining uncertain? Will they try to inquire further? Or, do they just accept to live with the uncertainty and move on?

In thinking about these questions, it seems that how a student deals with uncertainty really has to do with how well the teacher helps students manage it. This article makes it clear that this is a key responsibility of the teacher. When students are encouraged to tackle problems, uncertainty can be productive; however, when problems are to be avoided, that is when students struggle in managing uncertainty (Jordan & McDaniel, in press). As a teacher, there will of course be those students who struggle with a particular concept more so than other students. This might lead to frustration from both the person who is struggling and those who are directly working with them. According to the study by Jordan and McDaniel (in press), if individuals shared the same uncertainty over time, groups eventually become annoyed with them and lost their patience. Therefore, it is crucial that teachers consistently model supportive peer responses for their students. Additionally, it is important that when assigning group work, that they strategically group students so no one becomes discouraged from their uncertainty.

The article suggests that individuals learn how to mange their uncertainty through their interactions with others (Jordan & McDaniel, in press). Therefore, it must be communicated in every interaction with students that uncertainty is natural and healthy. Though it can be difficult within the context of standardized testing where kids are encouraged to get to the ‘right’ answer all the time, it must be emphasized that struggling can be a good thing. Teachers should not always try to reduce student uncertainty immediately to supposedly allow learning to happen (Jordan & McDaniel, in press). From being a classroom teacher, however, I know this is very hard to change, especially when teachers are constantly being evaluating for what their students know at that moment. I do think that changing the way we manage student uncertainty could increase educational excellence, but it is something that teachers and administrators will need to agree upon in order for this to be a reality.


Jordan, M. E., & McDaniel, R. R. (in press). 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.  doi: 10.1080/10508406.2014.896254

Levels of PD and where we go from here.

Borko, H. (2004). Professional development and teacher learning: mapping the terrain. Educational Researcher, 33(8), 3–15. doi:10.3102/0013189X033008003


In her article, Professional Development and Teacher Learning: Mapping the Terrain, Hilda Borko discusses the current state of educational research, specifically with regards to professional development for teachers in a Kindergarten through twelfth grade setting. She lays the legal and research-backed foundations as to why professional development is so critical in our education system, each of which I will discuss in turn. She starts off with a brief discussion of the idea that educational reform movements across the country are setting ambitious goals for the learning of their students, yet, these efforts, which are set by policy-makers, rely on teachers’ ability to implement the changes in classroom practice (Borko, 2004). Educational scholars and policy-makers have recognized this dynamic, which is why teachers are required, by statute, to have regular opportunities for “high quality” professional development (Borko, 2004, p.3). Researchers have argued that, “helping out teachers to succeed and enabling our children to learn is an investment in human potential, one that is essential to guaranteeing America’s future freedom and prosperity” (Borko, 2004, p.3). Despite these two mandates –one legal, the other moral – professional development opportunities for teachers are, “woefully inadequate,” even though various educational agencies spend, “millions, if not billions, of dollars” on it (Borko, 2004, p.3).

Further, Borko tells that professional development is the, “most serious unsolved problem for policy and practice in American education today” (Borko, 2004, p. 3). So, throughout the remainder of her article, she attempts to answer two fundamental questions about the state of professional development: 1) What do we know about professional development programs’ impact on teacher learning, and 2) what are the important directions and strategies for expanding our knowledge in this area? (Borko, 2004). She attempts to answer these two questions with the use of a multifocal lens in three distinct phases, each of which I will discuss in turn.

One of the particular strengths of Borko’s article was the methods she used to measure the effectiveness of professional development, specifically her use a multifocal lens.  She articulates a challenge she encountered as, “I have struggled to articulate how researchers can keep both the individual and the community in focus” (Borko, 2004, p.8); a problem she creatively solves with a metaphor of using a multifocal lens, which allows objects, both distant and near, to be in focus at the same time. In the context of professional development, on the ‘nearside,’ this allows for the analysis of data on questions regarding how a teacher can construct new knowledge and instructional practices, whereas, ‘distant focus’ allows for analysis of questions on norms of communications and patterns of participation (Borko, 2004, p.8). The idea that multiple aspects can be viewed at the same time in the course of the same study, is a novel one to me and, given that I think my line of inquiry will relate to professional development, this study provides a framework that I can use to view and interpret my results, focusing on the impact on individual teachers’, as well as the effectiveness of the program in terms of improving students’ achievement.

Borko’s uses of the three-phase model provide different levels of questions to be viewed through her multifocal approach. The Phase I approach allows for research questions and activities committed to investigating the results of an individual professional development program at a single site (Borko, 2004). The second Phase allows researchers to study a single professional development program implemented more than one facilitator at multiple school sites; these questions explore the how the facilitator, the professional development program, and the role that teachers play as learners.  The third and final phase is the sum of the previous two and explores relationships between multiple professional development programs, enacted at multiple sites, by multiple facilitators.

There were several components of this study that surprised me. First, I was interested to learn that there have been no Phase III research studies, for several reasons: the large-scale, multi-method field studies will require new ways to collect and analyze data (Borko, 2004). Such studies will require substantial funds to complete. Next, on a more personal and professional thought, I was surprised to learn that the professional development program that I work to implement through my work falls into the Phase II level of Borko’s study. This will provide me a framework that will allow for a more complete analysis when I implement my innovation.  The final area of surprise for me was the idea of “willing participants” (Borko, 2004, p.5). Now that I have seen this phrase, it makes perfect sense, but was not something I had previously considered; if people volunteer for a study, they are likely people with an open mind, who are willing to implement changes and try new things in their work and professional life. This is another area that I will need to take into consideration when I start to plan for my innovation. I will want to explore further research to better understand how mandated participation versus optional participation can affect the results of a study.

Having experienced professional development sessions, both as a facilitator and participant, I was not at all surprised to learn that the role of facilitator is of incredible importance to the overall success of the professional development program (Borko, 2004). I’ve sat in a significant number of professional development sessions that have completely failed because the presenter used outdated instructional delivery methods that did not actively engage those in the audience. I want to explore research that delves into what methods are most effective for implementing professional development as an external provider.

Despite all of this, I think that this research provides a lot of particular situative context that I can consider as I seek to design and implement my innovation at my worksite. Yet, it was heartening to learn that research supports the need for professional development in schools, as it does have a significant and substantial impact on students’ outcomes.

The Power of Believing in Cultural Capital

“If I am willing to look in that mirror and not run from what I see, I have a chance to gain self-knowledge – and knowing myself is as crucial to good teaching as knowing my students and my subject….In fact, knowing my students and my subject depends heavily on self-knowledge.  When I do not know myself, I cannot know who my students are.  I will see them through a glass darkly, in the shadows of my own unexamined life – and when I cannot see them clearly, I cannot teach them well.”  (Palmer, 1998 as cited in Howard, 2003)

Where has this article, “Culturally Relevant Pedagogy:  Ingredients for Critical Teacher Reflection” by Tyrone Howard (2003), been all of my professional career? This is critical information that I have tried to explain to my fellow colleagues over the years.  To the ones who simply do not understand the need for culturally relevant pedagogy and to those who do not understand that their own cultures often overrule the cultures of those they teach, both consciously and subconsciously.  If they aren’t going to listen to me, maybe they’ll listen to a peer-reviewed journal article…you know, since us teachers are more inclined to place more value in research data than one person’s opinion.

Research recognizes the need for culturally relevant pedagogy.  Research understands the importance of setting aside one’s own beliefs in an effort to understand the needs of another culture’s beliefs.  Research supports that the best way to teach a student is to know the student.

Howard (2003) stated “teacher educators must be able to help preservice teachers critically analyze important issues such as race, ethnicity, and culture, and recognize how these important concepts shape the learning experience for many students.”  It is important to note that this understanding cannot be superficial, as in being politically correct for the sake of being politically correct. It’s about having the desire to open your mind to new cultures, beliefs and lifestyles and a willingness to accept them as equally important as your own.  It’s about truly valuing the “cultural capital” that walks into your classroom each and every day (Howard, 2003). I love that phrase, “cultural capital.”  Absolutely looooove it!  Capital is an asset.  Cultural capital means that culture is seen as an asset.  What better way to think about the diversity of our classrooms?  A room filled with cultural capital…including our own!

It is also about getting to the core of who you are by engaging in the “critical reflection” that Howard (2003) talks extensively about.  As stated in the opening quote, if you cannot understand yourself, you cannot understand your students, which, in turn, means that you cannot achieve the success that you wish to achieve with your students.  Critical reflection requires us to dig deep within ourselves to shed light on our belief systems and to be honest about what we believe and why we believe in them.

This task can be very difficult, especially if you hold beliefs that you don’t want to admit.  And, really, that’s ok.  But, to get to the core of your being, you must acknowledge they exist.  Critical reflection isn’t used as a mean to criticize your beliefs, but is used to foster a deeper understanding of those beliefs.  We have all learned what we know and believe in from sources that are important to us and through our own life experiences. Whether or not you are comfortable speaking about them openly, self-reflection is not about letting the world know or attempting to change your beliefs, it’s about engaging in honest and in-depth reflection about how your “positionality” can influence your students, both positively and negatively, and how it “can shape students’ conceptions of self” (Howard, 2003).

I often joke with my students that I am just as much a part of their families as their parents, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins!  After all, I do see them all day, every day five days out of the week.  If we take a minute to think about that, this should speak volumes.  What kind of influence has our own families had on us?  What did they teach us and how has that molded us into the adults that we are today?  Have the people closest to us seen the good, the bad, and the ugly, yet, have continued to love us, believe in us and encourage us to achieve great things?

We have this type of influence on our students.  We can build up or break down any one of our students.  That’s how much power we have.  But, we also have to be careful that we preserve and appreciate each students’ individual cultural capital.

Once we have a full appreciation of who our students are and have reflected on how our own personal beliefs can impact our teaching, then we can truly begin to effectively teach them.  Howard (20030 stated that we must “construct pedagogical practices in ways that are culturally relevant, racially affirming, and socially meaningful.”  How motivated would our students be if they felt like their beliefs/culture/life experiences, etc. matter, are important and are worth learning about?  Just think about why you are in this program and what you hope to accomplish…


Howard, T. C. (2003). Culturally relevant pedagogy: Ingredients for critical teacher reflection. Theory into Practice, 42(3), 195–202.