Personal Growth & Study Abroad

Ingraham, E. C., & Peterson, D. L. (2004). Assessing the impact of study abroad on student learning at michigan state university. Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad, 10, 83-100.

Since 2000, Michigan State University (MSU) has been engaged in a process of assessing the impact study abroad has on student learning at their institution.  Ingraham and Peterson’s (2004) report is the first publication to present the initial findings of the study.  In the report, the authors rely on pre and post surveys administered to study abroad program participants, journals written by students while abroad, focus groups of returned students, and written reports from faculty who have led programs.  The study also used information from MSU’s central student database “to compare various aspects of students who have studied abroad with those who have not” (p. 85).

What I appreciate about MSU’s project is that it seems like a great example of action research in study abroad from which I can learn for my future research.  Rather than creating a study that is designed to have broad implications for the field, the institutional assessment committee established to oversee the project set out to carry out a study that would continually assess the impact of study abroad on the specific goals and learning outcomes MSU set for its students and programs.  These goals are listed by Ingraham and Peterson as follows:

1. Facilitate students’ intellectual growth
2. Contribute to students’ professional development
3. Accelerate students’ personal growth
4. Develop students’ skills for relating to culturally different others
5. Enhance students’ self-awareness and understanding of their own culture
6. Contribute to the internationalization of the students’ home department, college or university (p. 84)

The project used qualitative and quantitative analyses of the aforementioned datasets to verify its findings.  In terms of a qualitative analysis, the researchers used student self-assessments and consulted faculty observations of students on their programs.  As for qualitative analysis, the project reviewed student data obtained from the University’s central student database. The authors state that because the findings were meant to be used only internally at the institution, “we have not undertaken a search of the existing literature in order to provide a bibliography and citations” (p. 84).  While I understand this to some degree, I think it would have still been useful to present some key pieces of literature that the project’s assessment committee consulted in order to establish their research design, especially to glean some insight as to how they agreed upon the aforementioned goals.

The presentation of the report is organized and concise, but is notably lacking in some areas, such as the research design section.  I would have appreciated more insight into the pre and post program questionnaires that were used, as well as being provided more information in how focus groups were formed, although I suspect a reason why details such as these were not shared was because of the intent to have this serve internal institutional priorities.  I do not think that the findings can necessarily be considered to be significant for the field at large, namely because the research design was based around MSU’s specific goals for its students and programs, but the findings do seem credible and would probably be alike if other institutions were to carry out similar projects.  I appreciate that the study was closely linked to MSU’s own institutional priorities since outcomes of study abroad programs can vary depending upon how study abroad is situated at each individual institution.

As evidenced in some of my earlier posts on this blog, Ingraham and Peterson found that “overall, there is a strong perception of significant gain from participation in study abroad and it is evident that short-term programs provide notable value” (p. 90).  This study further clarified the nature of this gain in finding that personal growth was among the most impacted by study abroad, whereas professional development did not demonstrate any statistically significant difference.  One reason for such a profound effect on personal growth is “the psychological challenge posed by the unfamiliar…[it] is particularly acute when abroad and, while sometimes the anguish it can cause (e.g., homesickness, depression) can diminish the benefit, there is no doubt that the predominant effect on personal growth is positive and profound” (p. 94).

This recalls the notion, posed by Jordan and McDaniel (2014), of “productive uncertainty” (p. 34).  I strongly believe that part of the reason study abroad is lauded as such a transformative educational and personal experience by international educators is precisely because of its ability to encourage learning in highly unfamiliar contexts.  Students not only learn academics, but learn about their various identities and how they react in different scenarios when they are forced to navigate unstructured and foreign settings.  Therefore, it is not surprising to me that the authors would find such marked increase in the area of personal growth.  I think the area of ‘productive uncertainty’ in the study abroad context holds rich opportunities for research.  Specifically, on short-term programs led by American faculty, examining how groups of American students rely on one another and their faculty member to negotiate these unfamiliar settings seems to me as though it would be very useful.  Depending upon the findings, strategies for preparing students to embrace the idea of productive uncertainty rather than succumb to mental health issues that may arise, such as homesickness or depression, would be very useful for the field.

Concerning what further study might effectively build on this piece of research, since it is very tailored to MSU’s study abroad initiatives, I think the researchers should next look at a group of students who have not applied to study abroad and examine personal growth for this group.  In higher education, there is much discussion on student engagement theory so it would be interesting to know if the levels of personal growth gained during study abroad have any statistical significance as compared to those gains in personal growth by students who did not study abroad but who are engaged in other manners on the home campus.

Ingraham, E. C., & Peterson, D. L. (2004). Assessing the impact of study abroad on student learning at michigan state university. Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad, 10, 83-100.

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.

“Damned to be concrete”: Considering productive uncertainty in data visualization

Marx, V. (2013). “Data visualization: Ambiguity as a fellow traveler.” Nature Methods, 10(7), 613-615.

In their musings on the importance of uncertainty with regards to social networks and educational attainment, Jordan and McDaniel (In Press) bring to the forefront an interesting concept of “productive uncertainty” (pp.5).  This idea allows that while uncertainty is not always pleasant—and while learners will often seek to minimize it—the experience is not without value.  Marx (2013), while discussing the complexities and shortcomings common among data visualizations, expands upon this concept; uncertainty, particularly within a statistical realm, can illuminate new characteristics of the data or new methodologies that address shortcomings in collection or analysis.  However, data visualizations themselves can obscure or outright hide this level of detail.  So how do we visualize data in a way that is both simple and transparent?

“[With visuals], we are damned to be concrete” (Marx, 2013, pp. 613).

Marx (2013), using examples from genomic and biomedical research, poses an interesting question: In discussing scientific results, researchers often feel compelled to gloss over, if not exactly obscure, uncertainty in their data.  These questions can arise from inconsistent collection, imperfect aggregation, or even unexpected results.  However, these “unloved fellow travelers of science” (pp. 613) cannot exist visually in the type of “grey area” analysis that Marx contends they often do while in text.  When faced with creating an honest visualization, then, researchers must decide to what extent they will account for study uncertainty.  Marx, in explaining the potential impacts of this decision, advocates that researchers strongly consider two points: First, that uncertainty may have implication upon the data itself; and second, that a transparent consideration of uncertainty strongly impacts “what comes next.”

Thus, Marx (2013) is explicitly pushing productivity over negativity when reflecting upon uncertainty in data or the wider study; however, she is also acknowledging that even within the specific context of biomedical researchers, the pull to minimize uncertainty when broadly discussing results exists.

Down the rabbit hole: Analysis can create uncertainty too

One should also consider the process—largely mathematical, in this context—of moving from a raw dataset to a clean visualization.  Common steps for creating data visualizations, particularly in genomics and the biomedical sciences, often include aggregating data from different sources (and thus methods of collection) or summarizing large and complex markers into something more easily digestible.  By attempting to standardize disparate collection methods into something more uniform, or by summarizing disparate study groups or grouped variables, an important level of detail is lost.  These processes themselves can obscure data, which in turn obscures uncertainty for the end audience, whose exposure to this study may wholly lie in the visualization.  Going somewhat down the rabbit hole, this in itself can therefore create new uncertainty.

Certainly, simplicity is important in a data visualization; however, as Marx argues, researchers also have an obligation to consider that by glossing over details of uncertainty, or by creating new sources of uncertainty through their analyses, the wider community may understand their work less, or may make assumptions of their findings that are unfounded.

In particular, missing data presents a complex dilemma.  Marx (2013) gives the example of a genomic sequencing experiment, seeking to map a stretch of genetic material that contains 60 million bases:

“The scientists obtain results and a statistical distribution of sequencing coverage across the genome.  Some stretches might be sequenced 100-fold, whereas other stretches have lower sequencing depths or no coverage at all…But after an alignment, scientists might find that they have aligned only 50 million of the sought-after 60 million bases…This ambiguity in large data sets due to missing data—in this example, 10 million bases—is a big challenge” (pp. 614).

As opposed to data that is statistically uncertain, or uncertain by virtue of its collection methods, missing data is a true negative whose effect is difficult to truthfully express and explain.

So how do we show uncertainty visually?

Marx suggests several methods for including uncertainty visually when discussing data.  Broadly, she suggests including some representation of uncertainty within a visualization; this can be layered on top of the data visualized—for example, using color coding or varying levels of transparency to indicate more and less certain data.  A visualization can also account for uncertainty separate from the data, by using an additional symbol to denote certainty or the reverse, for example.  She also discusses contrasting analyses of similar (or the same) data that have reached differing conclusions; taking into account their methods of analysis, this inclusion of multiple viewpoints can also round a discussion of uncertainty.

In addition to understanding how to represent uncertainty visually, however, one should also consider how and when (during a study or study analysis) one should tabulate uncertainty.  One platform looking to incorporate uncertainty holistically into data visualization is Refinery.  In particular, Marx notes that this system seeks to find “ways to highlight for scientists what might be missing in their data and their analysis steps” (pp. 614), both addressing uncertainty situated in data and analysis.  As shown below, this system considers uncertainty at all steps throughout the data analysis, rather than only at the end, giving a more rounded picture of how uncertainty has influenced the study at all levels.

“The team developing the visualization platform Refinery (top row) is testing how to let users track uncertainty levels (orange) that arise in each data analysis step” (Marx, 2013, pp. 615).

In the graphic, the blue boxes represent data at different stages during analysis.  Orange, in the top row, represents the types of uncertainty that may arise during each analytical step, concluding that the orange error bars in the bar graph to the far right are much more comprehensive in their calculation.  The light blue bar in the bottom row shows the disparity, theoretically, when error is only taken into account at the end of an analysis.  While the magnitude of uncertainty may not be as significantly different as shown in the graphic, researchers are better able to account for what causes or has caused error in the top row; they are better able to situate their uncertainty.

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but do they have to tell one story?

Analyzing data is often a narrative process; however, as Marx (2013) alludes, there can be consequences to how one tells their story.  Washing over uncertainty, in both preparing and discussing results, can be misleading, limiting both a researcher’s true understanding of their own data, and collaborations or theories that use the data as a foundation for further study.  Marx, however, is not disparaging researchers who fail to consider uncertainty as dishonest; she is promoting the idea that considering uncertainty positive—or productive—can lead research in novel directions.


Jordan, M.E. & McDaniel, R.R. (In Press). “Managing uncertainty during collaborative problem solving in elementary school teams: The role of peer influences in robotics engineering activity.” The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 1-49.

A Brain for Business

Rock, D., & Sctiwartz, J. (2007). The Neuroscience of Leadership, 10–17.


Concentrating on three main parts of the brain:  the prefrontal cortex, the basal ganglia, and the amygdala, Rock and Schwartz (2007) explain some of the functioning of the brain and implications for leaders of change.  The prefrontal cortex is where working memory resides and where new information is processed.  The basal ganglia is used in routine activities that we know how to do well without a lot of conscious thought and links simple behaviors from different parts of the brain.  If someone wants to change a routine or process that is already well-known, he has to concentrate on that change until it is embedded in his memory.  This means he has to override what is stored in his basal ganglia, a low-energy part of the brain, by using his prefrontal cortex, a high-energy part of the brain.  This expenditure of energy and effort causes an actual physical sensation of discomfort.

The brain also has the ability to detect “errors” or patterns that are different from what is expected.  The unexpected input causes the brain to give “strong signals that use a lot of energy, showing up in imaging technology as dramatic bursts of light” (Rock & Schwartz, 2007, p. 12).  These bursts of energy alert the amygdala, which is where the primal emotions of fear and anger are located.  They also take energy away from the prefrontal cortex.  So, when something is different from what we expect, we reduce the energy used for logical thought and increase the energy used for fear or anger.

The implications are that change is truly physically painful as high-energy areas of the brain are at work. Change arouses the basic feelings of anger and fear, which can inhibit learning. Focusing on new behaviors is powerful and can actually change the pathways in the brain, especially if the focus is repeated until the change has moved from the prefrontal cortex (working memory) to the basal ganglia (long-term, automatic memory).

Strengths and critiques

This is a well-organized article that takes a dense subject and makes it understandable.  With the projected audience of business leaders, the authors probably assumed that the readers do not know much, if anything, about brain functioning and research.  The practical, clear advice delineated in each section is supported with brief technical explanations of the workings of the brain.  Everyday examples help exemplify the technical points.

This is a unique contribution to the field of business management because few authors combine the fields of management and neuroscience.  The authors,

Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz, M.D. and Dr. David Rock, are unique because they come from different fields, yet their collaboration is essential for applying the findings of brain research to other fields.  Dr. Schwartz is a psychiatrist who has done research on brain functioning, concentrating mostly on brain imaging and obsessive-compulsive disorder, and Dr. Rock is an international business professor who has written articles and speaks widely about the implications of brain research in business.

The main drawback of this article is that the studies that contributed to this body of knowledge are not identified with in-text citations nor with an end-of-paper bibliography.  Schwartz & Rock are respected in their fields and are reliable sources of information.  The researchers for various studies are noted in the text, but direct reference to a particular journal is not included.  Perhaps Schwartz & Rock did this by design so that the article would be more accessible to the general public and to business professionals who are not academics.


I think this article informs some of the work of Dr. Michelle Jordan.  In our class discussion with Dr. Jordan (2014), she pointed out that uncertainty can be productive and is essential for learning.  However, in a study of uncertainty in a robotics task in fifth grade collaborative groups, one student, Roy, had difficulties with interpersonal skills as part of his group seemed to ignore or chasten him.  Jordan and McDaniel (2010) comment, “So salient was Roy’s need to resolve his relational uncertainty that he seemed unable to attend to the robotics task” (p. 24).  Roy’s brain was reacting to an “error” where what was happening in his group (they were ignoring him) and what he expected were different.  His brain is now using a large amount of energy to relay error messages and to activate the amygdala, the home of primal fear and anger.  This use of energy reduces the ability of the prefrontal cortex to process the higher-order thinking necessary to attend to the engineering problem.

Further study

This article focuses on the implications for business management and change.  However, the field of education can also benefit from this type of study.  It was a good place to see how neuroscience can inform practices in another field.  Many of the ideas are directly applicable to an educational setting.

Also, I would like to go back and delve in to some of the actual scientific studies mentioned.  The field of neuroscience is still new.  Much of the research is recent and more implications may be found as the research advances.


Jordan, M. E., & Mcdaniel, R. R. (2010). Managing Uncertainty During Collaborative Problem Solving in Elementary School Teams : The Role of Peer Influence in Robotics Engineering Activity, 00(2002).

Rock, D., & Sctiwartz, J. (2007). The Neuroscience of Leadership, 10–17.

The Uncertainty of a New Environment

As I read Michelle E. Jordan and Reuben R. McDaniel, Jr.’s (2014) article, “Managing Uncertainty During Collaborative Problem Solving in Elementary School Teams:  The Role of Peer Influence in Robotics Engineering Activity, I began to reflect on how I have dealt with uncertainty from kindergarten until now, a current doctoral student.  Jordan and McDaniel (2014) define uncertainty 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.”

All of this brought me back to the 5th grade, when I had attended 5 different elementary schools!  Yes, FIVE!  Two in Houston and 3 in Phoenix.  I spent kindergarten through 4th grade in the same school so making the transition to a new school, in a new state, terrified me.  But, because I did not have a say in the matter, I walked into my new 5th grade class.  It was definitely a culture shock.  I thought there was no way for sure that I would ever fit in…we were so different.  Jordan and McDaniel (2014) stated, “social interaction is a primary means of expressing uncertainty and can also be a source of uncertainty.”

I remember all of the students listening to my every word.  I did not understand why, but they just kept asking me question after question about where I came from.  But, then a boy asked me, “why do you talk so funny?”  Me?  I talked funny?  Are you kidding me?  Have you heard what YOU sound like?  And, that is the first time I remember feeling out of place.

From there, it just got worse.  My neighbor downstairs asked me if I wanted to go play with her in the bayou and catch crawdads.  I didn’t know what a bayou or a crawdad was…but, I didn’t say that I didn’t know.  I just said, “sure.”  As Jordan and McDaniel (2014) would say, my uncertainty stemmed from my “partial knowledge and understanding” (I knew that it was going to involve “playing”) and “the negotiation of social roles” (I just wanted to make a new friend).  When we got to the bayou, I was confused.  Then, my neighbor skidded down the side of it and began running her hands through the water.  She picked up some creature and popped it into a jar.  Yep, that was the crawdad.  Talk about weird!  But, you know what?  After a few weeks of refusing to step foot in that bayou and try and catch crawdads it became my new favorite thing to do!  Go figure!  After reading Jordan and McDaniel (2014), it appears that I had received some support from my peer and was able to learn from her that it was the “cool” thing to do.

Then came the biggest culture shock of them all…line dancing!  I didn’t have the slightest idea of what it was and this was actually a part of our school day.  I remember watching from the sidelines and I did not have the slightest idea what they were doing.  I even asked my teacher if I had to learn how to line dance.  And, I got a very firm, “yes.”  I stumbled my way through line dancing and, eventually, I actually became good at it.

And, then, WHAM!, I was hit with another foreign task…SQUARE dancing!  Except this was different…I had to dance with someone else…a boy!  Not only was I faced with “content uncertainty,” but “relational uncertainty” as well (Jordan & McDaniel, 2014).  Like line dancing, I hadn’t the slightest idea what it was, and I remember wondering why would anyone want to dance in a square?  On top of that, I had never danced with anyone before.  I tried to avoid participating for a couple of days and asked if I could just watch.  Once I understood the lingo, I was able to start to make a connection with the content.  I practiced what I remembered at home.  But, once I began participating, it was clear that I had no idea what I was doing.  I stuck out like a sore thumb.  I remember some kids making fun of me because the girl from Arizona didn’t know how to square dance.  I remember some of the boys saying that they didn’t want to be my partner because I couldn’t dance.  The unsupportive responses (Jordan & McDaniel, 2014).  But, I also remember the boys and girls who volunteered to be my partner.  I remember them walking me through every move of every song until I got the hang of it.  The supportive responses (Jordan & McDaniel, 2014).  And, eventually, I did, but it definitely wasn’t my cup of tea.

Later that year, we finally moved back to Arizona because my mom couldn’t take being in Texas anymore.  Thank goodness!  Looking back on it now, while I was back in familiar territory, I ended up attending three different schools in two very different areas of town.  I wish I remembered more about what I experienced in those schools, but it was one crazy school year and everything is a bit hazy.  But, I will never forget learning about bayous, crawdads, line dancing and square dancing!

Jordan, M.E. and R.R. McDaniel, Jr.  (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)0, p. 1-47.

That came out of left field!

Jordan, M., McDaniel, Jr., 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. 0(0), 1-47.

Yosso*, T. J. (2005). Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community cultural wealth. Race Ethnicity and Education, 8(1), 69-91.

That came out of left field!

The articles that resonated with me this week are surprising to say the least. The first article that grabbed my attention was Jordan & McDaniel’s Managing Uncertainty During Collaborative Problem Solving in Elementary School teams: The Role of Peer Influence in Robotics Engineering Activity. This article focuses on the reasons why uncertainty can arise for an individual in various settings and also how those individuals cope with feelings of uncertainty. One other novel element about this text, is that it follows the causes of uncertainty and the coping mechanisms of 5th grade students in relation to their collaborative peers. The causes of uncertainty can come from the content or the relationships within the collaborative group. This particular article really struck me as I started to consider the content of the article through the lens of leadership. As an educator and leader within our communities of practice, it would be important and beneficial to be familiar with this information and its implications. Jordan & McDaniel (2014) state that some types of uncertainty can be good for a group because it can increase creativity and innovation. Other sources of uncertainty could be damaging to a group and its productivity because it pulls attention away from creativity and innovation. As the leader in a community of practice, I would want to be engaging the learning community in the examination of this research and the direct utilization of it to define better harnessing this “sustained” productive uncertainty.
Yosso’s article entitled, Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community cultural wealth, was a great article because of what it spoke about. For all the years that I’ve had in the classroom, I have heard countless educators critique my students’ parents or their students’ parents on all the things they are doing wrong in regards to parenting or what they lack. It seems that I’m more apt to hear why a parent is bad or can’t help their student at all rather than colleagues expounding on all of the essential and unique information that parents and students carry with them. It painfully reminds me of when I hear colleagues speak about their ELL students as if they have no knowledge or information at all and are a complete “tabula rasas” (or blank slates).
One of the other points of agreement that I had within this article, came from two quotes from outside this article. “We need to de-academize theory and to connect the community to the academy (Anzaldua, 1990). Now that I’ve concluded my third year working within higher education, I’m constantly plagued by the concept of community benefited research. Who could really use this new knowledge and put it to the most, good use? If we are educational researchers and our findings from our work never reach or positively benefit students, what good is that research? I’ll conclude with one last quote from this particular article and a comment. This quote is simple yet powerful and to me speaks to the importance of not only publishing our work and knowledge, but ensuring that it leaves the minimally intended impact on the target audience. “Change requires more than words on a page–it takes perseverance, creative ingenuity and acts of love “ (Azaldua, 2002). I truly believe that quote speaks to the short and long-term tribulations, responsibilities, and joys of being an educational researcher. Well, being new to this role, I hope it does.

Anzaldua, G. (1990). Haciendo caras/making face, making soul: creative and critical perspectives by women of color. (San Francisco, CA, Aunt Lute Press).

Anzaldua, G. (2002). Now let us shift…the path of conocomiento…inner work, public acts, in: G. Anzaldua & A. Keating (eds). This bridge we call come: radical visions for transformation (New York, Routledge), 540-578.

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” []).


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

Situating “uncertainty” in communities of practice and competency-based medical education

This blog post discusses Jordan & McDaniel’s (in press) conceptualization of “uncertainty,” and seeks to situate that “uncertainty” in Wenger’s (2000) visualization of organizational structure.  We will also apply these theories to the adoption of competency-based assessments in graduate medical education.

Jordan and McDaniel describe uncertainty 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” (pp. 3).

For them, this concept is central to the process of learning.  However, they also note that uncertainty may play differing roles in learning outcomes.  Uncertainty can as easily be considered a desirable outcome—for example, in demonstrating the complexity of a concept, or the limits of a learner’s knowledge on a subject—as an undesirable one—where learners respond to an “impulse” to reduce their uncertainty (pp. 4).

Wenger, speaking systemically of our communities of practice, outlines two major types of knowledge: social competence, meaning the socially and historically situated understanding of our community; and experience, which captures personally acquired knowledge that may or may not align with wider societal beliefs (pp. 226-227).  When social competence and experience clash, this creates space for learning to occur, and knowledge, be it societal or individual, to change (pp. 227).

How, then, does uncertainty fit in Wenger’s community of practice?  Jordan & McDaniel have outlined two potential theories: Uncertainty can take the place of individual experience.  As Jordan & McDaniel note, uncertainty (particularly in a classroom setting) can be very experiential; it is a common modality for learners to see and challenge the structure of their classroom, or relationships with fellow students.  Uncertainty, however, can also take the place of learning, or as a part of learning, that allows learners to identify questions regarding societal competence and to be inquisitive about their social knowledge.

The below example, discussing core curricular expectations of graduate medical education, is an example of uncertainty as both a mode of experience as well as a situation for learning.  

The American Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) is the nonprofit accrediting body for American medical schools; it focuses upon “graduate” medical education, meaning residency programs, internships, fellowships and the like, rather than “undergraduate” medical institutions, which award the MD or DO degrees.  Traditionally, “variability in the quality of resident education” was a major systemic stressor (Nasca et al. 2012, pp. 1051).  In response to this, the ACGME historically focused upon quality of teaching and program structure when evaluating an institution.  However, to many such institutions, this focus created an undue administrative burden, stifling innovation, reducing staff and faculty availability to mentor students, and lagging behind systemic changes in the wider medical system.  In 1999, the ACGME introduced six core competencies that, in order to remain accredited, graduate medical education programs must include in their curriculum (Nasca 2012):

  • Medical Knowledge (MK)
  • Patient Care (PC)
  • Interpersonal Skills and Communication (IPC)
  • Professionalism (P)
  • Systems-Based Practice (SBP)
  • Practice-Based Learning and Improvement (PBLI)

The six factors outlined above were designed to shift administrative focus toward tangible “outcomes and learner-centered approaches” (pp. 1052).  For learners, it shifted the focus of medical curriculum closer to real world application.  With traditional didactic lecturing concentrated within one of the six categories, this system presented a unique opportunity to reduce the uncertainty that existed between rote medical knowledge and the myriad of other competencies expected of a practicing physician.  It mandated space within the medical curriculum to both experience parts of being a physician beyond a textbook knowledge of medicine or medical procedures—displaying professionalism with patients, families and other medical professionals; clearly communicating complicated concepts to lay audiences; refine their bedside manner, and practice composure in emotionally difficult situations.  The addition of “System-Based Practice” and “Practice-Based Learning and Improvement” also gave learners the room to confront uncertainty as a part of Wegner’s learning: To practice critical reflexivity, identify strengths and weaknesses in the current structure of the medical system, and to situate themselves as physicians and advocates within that system.



Jordan, M.E. and McDaniel, R.R. (In Press). “Managing uncertainty during collaborative problem solving in elementary school teams: The role of peer influences in robotics engineering activity.” The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 1-49.

Nasca, TJ et al. (2012). “The next GME accreditation system: Rationale and benefits.” New England Journal of Medicine, 366(11), 1051-1056.

Wenger, E. (2000).  “Communities of practice and social learning systems.” Organization, 7, 225-246.

The Power of Verbal and Non-Verbal Behavior

In the article Managing Uncertainty During Collaborative Problem Solving in Elementary School Teams: The Role of Peer Influence in Robotics Engineering Activity, Jordan and McDaniel (in press) explore how peer interaction influence the ways in which students manage uncertainty. The authors explain how “communication is the primary means by which individuals cope with uncertainty.” (Jordan & McDaniel, in press)

The study on managing uncertainty was conducted with 24 fifth graders who represented the demographics of the school. The research involved three collaborative robotics-engineering projects throughout the school year. The researchers chose to focus on robotics and engineering because “learning to participate in engineering practices is one context in which uncertainty is particularly relevant.” (Jordan & McDaniel, in press, p. 4)

This year, I had the opportunity to participate in a professional development with pre-service teachers to support Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics in the classroom. During this professional development we collaboratively engaged in an ill-structured engineering project that focused on building wind turbines. My group consisted of three teachers and one pre-service teacher. I experienced uncertainty during this group project. I was unfamiliar with the tools we were using along with the math and science concepts needed to develop the wind turbine. Reflecting back on the project and the interactions of our small group, the pre-service teacher was willing to take the most risks in communicating strategies to manage uncertainty, which positively supported the development of our wind turbine and our new learning during the professional development. Jordan and McDaniel remind us that “involving students in active struggle can be productive for learning.” (in press)

The authors used a variety of methods to collect data on uncertainty and uncertainty management. They thoroughly explain how they collected data and how they refined their collection of data from Project A to Project C. As a future researcher, I really appreciated the deep insight into what methods the authors used to collect the data and why they chose those methods. I was especially interested in the transcript examples throughout the article and how the authors paid special attention to verbal and non-verbal behavior in both the transcripts and the video. The authors also explained how the data sources were not used in silos. They describe how analysis of one source of data would lead them to go back and analyze another data source. The data collection section of this article was beneficial because the authors listed questions they asked themselves during the data collection process and described how they networked with other experts in the field.

Through the analysis of data, Jordan and McDaniel found that “students’ success at managing uncertainty during collaborative problem solving was dependent on the willingness and ability of their peer collaborators to respond supportively.” (in press, p. 26) The authors also developed an easy to read flow chart to support their findings visually. (Jordan and McDaniel, in press, p. 33) As a doctoral student, I feel that I can learn a lot from these findings. I am constantly in a state of uncertainty in exploring new content and unfamiliar tasks. I believe as a doctoral cohort, we have already started taking risks within our community in managing uncertainty and responding respectfully and supportively. This article reaffirms the influence of our verbal and non-verbal communication within our communities of practice and I want to be mindful that my words and non-verbal behavior are supportive and productive.



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

Equipping Students to Persevere in spite of Uncertainty

I have facilitated countless professional developments for our iTeachAZ Site Coordinators, mentor teachers and teacher candidates, and one question that I always ask when I am beginning a session on teaching is, “when you walk out of a lesson that you deem to be effective, what elements have led you to that decision?” Nearly every time I ask that question, participant responses include things like…lessons should be appropriately challenging or students should be a little uncomfortable. These responses, although I am in agreement with them, have always puzzled me. How do you measure the appropriate amount of discomfort or challenge without losing the students’ motivation to stay involved in the lesson? How do we equip students to have the tools necessary to persevere in spite of their desire to want to give up when solving difficult tasks?

In ‘Managing uncertainty during collaborative problem solving in elementary school teams: The role of peer influence in robotics engineering activity”, Jordan et al. conducted a qualitative study on fifth graders. The study focused on collaborative groups and the role that the groups played in how students responded to content and uncertainty while working on engineering projects. They explain, “Managing uncertainty refers to behaviors an individual engages in to enable action 
in the face of uncertainty. Uncertainty is a regularly occurring experience for humans. Although it is often a difficult experience to manage, it is not inherently
an aversive state. Individuals are often motivated to reduce uncertainty through various information-seeking strategies” (P.5). Jordan et al. describes that uncertainty (or what I described above as appropriate challenge/discomfort) is a feeling and our natural response is to try to minimize it. Furthermore, they imply that there are strategies that can equip students to persevere and not let the feelings of uncertainty result in mismanagement.

In the study, Jordan et al. emphasize the importance of relationships and the key role that they play in supporting students to work through their uncertainty (P. 7). They describe various responses that students had while working on the engineering project. They observed interactions amongst the collaborative groups and examined the influence that the collaborative peers had on one another. During one observation, the authors observed a student who wasn’t able to articulate her uncertainty. They noticed that one of the group members began to question, challenge, and explain information to this student to assist her in articulating the uncertainty. The authors noted, “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). This response by the authors implies that students need to have the ability to empathize or see things from a different perspective in order to respond appropriately and support their peers. In this instance, for example, what would’ve happened if the peer didn’t have empathy? What effect would that have had on her ability to move forward and persevere with the project?

Empathy, which is an emotional intelligence competency, allowed the peers to respond by willingly supporting the student who was struggling. Jordan et al. echoes this idea and states, “students’ success at managing uncertainty during collaborative problem solving was dependent on the willingness and ability of their peer collaborators to respond supportively. As students received responses from peers, those responses
 acted as negative or positive feedback for subsequent attempts to manage uncertainty” (P. 26). The authors go on to further describe groups that did not have supportive peers and the effects that it had on the group members. They labeled these groups as “not particularly well-functioning” (P. 28).

Reverting back to the question about equipping students with the necessary tools to persevere in spite of uncertainty, it’s clear from the study that cooperative learning played a critical role in students’ perseverance with completing engineering projects. One would argue, however, that the group members, who lacked the emotional intelligence to empathize and support their peers, had an adverse effect on the students’ ability to move forward with the project.

Daniel Goleman (1995) first introduced the idea that one’s social skill, or emotional intelligence (EI), is a great contributor to relational success. There are several competencies that fall under the umbrella of EI including self-awareness, emotional management, empathy, and social competence. Further, Low and Nelson (2006) explain EI as a “learned ability to understand, use, and express human emotions in healthy and productive ways” (P. 2). Both Goleman and Low agree that these skills need to be taught and developed. As I conclude, it would seem that peer influence can be an effective tool, when the students are equipped with the emotional intelligence competencies to support their peers.


Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ for character, health, and lifelong achievement. New York, NY: Ban- tam Books.

Jordan, M.E. & McDaniel, (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

Low, G. R., & Nelson, D. B. (2006). Emotional Intelligence and college success: A research- based assessment and intervention model. In Center for Education Development & Evaluation (CEDER) Retrieved from Texas A&M University-Kingsville website: 1-10. http:// College_Success-2006.cederpaper.pdf


Growth Through Uncertainty

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, 1–49. doi:10.1080/10508406.2014.896254

Aw man, I’m a fifth grader!  Ok, I’m not a fifth grader, but that is who I was connecting with in the article by M.E. Jordan. I have so many new adventures I am starting and these days, uncertainty seems to be my constant state of mind. In addition to starting the Ed. D. program, I am now one of the mentor teachers at my school. To say that I have uncertainty about how my life will work over the next year is an understatement.

When any of my colleagues point out that I’m crazy for taking on so much and that it is going to be so hard, my response is always the same. “Yes, I’m a little crazy, but the most difficult stuff is the most rewarding.” When I read the statement, “Generating uncertainty can facilitate the reorganization of current beliefs, values and conceptions.” (Jordan & Mcdaniel, 2014), I was pleased to find an affirmation of my beliefs; further evidence, that in order to change, one has to work through the issue.

As I continued to reflect on the article and my new position at work I realized that I would not be the only person coming into this new community of practice with uncertainty. The new teachers I will be working with are not only going to be uncertain, but probably apprehensive. Jordan says that when we are presented with another’s uncertainty we will either respond in a socially supportive way or not. It is my job to help the new teachers grow as educators and to build a community of practice that deals with the uncertainty in a positive way. In an article by Wenger, he says that “Members build their community through mutual engagement. They interact with one another, establishing norms and relationships of mutuality that reflect these interactions.” (Wenger, 2000) Building relationships and establishing norms is going to play a huge role in how I can assist others in their uncertainty and vice versa.

I saw so many parallels between the 5th grade class in the article and the community I am now a part of in cohort 9. Each of us has been uncertain at many points over the last few weeks, but as a group we have helped each other in a positive way and have not only worked through our uncertainty, but have created a community of practice who works to support each other through our growth. It is exciting to be a part of it!

Tara Yosso discusses deficit thinking in her article. Even though she is discussing it from the position of minority students, I think it can be applied to any community of practice. She says that “Cultural capital is not just inherited or possessed by the middle class, but rather it refers to an accumulation of specific forms of knowledge, skills and abilities.”(Yosso, 2005) Each person brings cultural capital, regardless of race. As a leader it is really important to remember that everyone has their strengths and their weaknesses. In addition, my strengths are not going to be the same as the next person’s. By valuing people for the capital they bring, the community will become a valuable tool that will allow each of us to work together through our trials.

As I continue on my new adventures, I am confident that I can work through all of my uncertainties and help my community members through theirs. It is empowering to know that, at times, everyone has doubts and that working in a community of practice will allow me to grow, in spite of my uncertainty.


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

Yosso, T. J. (2005). Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community cultural wealth. Race Ethnicity and Education, 8(1), 69–91. doi:10.1080/1361332052000341006