Teaching the unknown: how to prepare students for uncertainty

Five steps that educators can take to teach students to cope with uncertainty and respond effectively to unforeseen events

Glenn-Egil Torgersen's avatar
University of South-Eastern Norway (USN)
17 Feb 2023
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Is it possible to prepare students for something that is yet not known? It could be in connection with war, accidents, natural disasters, and also occurrences in the classroom or everyday life.

The unforeseen is a natural part of life, at a societal and individual level. The consequences can be good or dangerous. We all experience this, to some degree, throughout our lives. Training students in handling uncertainty will help prepare them personally and better equip society to cope with the unforeseen.

Traditional learning models are not sufficient to handle these kinds of problems. Didactic models presuppose clear learning goals and a causal interaction between factors like the aims and the content, which cannot be defined in the case of unforeseen events. Formation models could lock one into familiar ways of acting and encourage choices based on past experience. Models for teaching the unforeseen must include improvisation and unplanned events. New models are needed.

Here are five actions an educator can take and adapt according to your target audience:

1. Get to know the unforeseen

Work with students to develop an understanding of the unforeseen, by examining personal examples and experiences.

Step 1.1: Draw on your own experiences

Find examples, personally and broader, of unexpected events, choosing some that presented risk and others that did not or were potentially positive.

Step 1.2: Sort the unforeseen events by level of risk 

Split your examples into those carrying risk and those that posed no risk. Then subdivide each of these groups into events that were potentially predictable and those that were unannounced, surprising or sudden.

Step 1.3: Raise awareness of preparation and learning

Discuss what could be learned from these examples, while they were happening and afterwards. Discuss how they might have been avoided, what preparations could help mitigate negative effects, and how and what lessons can be applied for the future.

2. Exploring the nuances of the unforeseen

I define the unforeseen as “something that appears relatively unexpected and with relatively low probability and predictability for those who are experiencing and handling it.” For further detail, see Interaction Under Risk in Torgersen, 2018, chapter 1, page 27.

The terms “relatively”, which relies on perspective, and “time” are important conceptual tools that can be used in analysis and discussion of experiences to identify nuances. This aids students in building self-efficacy and the ability to act when exposed to new events. Central questions are: What did I do during a sudden incident, what should I have done differently, and what should I do if something new and unforeseen will happen?

Step 2.1: Consider ‘relativity’

The nature of the unforeseen depends on viewpoint or perspective. An event can be a surprise for some parties (eg, a society and its emergency services) but could be expected and planned for by others (eg, the terrorist attack of 22 July 2011 at the island of Utøya and the government quarters in Oslo or Russia’s attack on Ukraine).

The event itself can therefore be objective and concrete, with common agreed facts. But the experience of the event can be subjective. Some people will be more robust to the psychological effects than others, so encourage students to ask, how robust am I? What events am I normally used to? How can I become more resilient? 

Expectations for what are unforeseen events can also be geographically and culturally conditioned – for example, a mudslide is less predictable in a flat area of land than a hilly one.

Work with these questions to raise awareness of expectations, degree of self-efficacy and ability to cope, practically, with new unforeseen events.

Step 2.2: Consider ‘time’ 

An unforeseen event can be described in three different time dimensions:

(1) Chronological time, where the event develops in a causal timeline from the first signs of danger (which may or may not be identified or ignored) to the eventual outcome. This way of thinking means that objectively there are no such things as unforeseen events – only warning signs that are not perceived.

(2) Messianic time, where the event is perceived to occur without any warning.

(3) UN-0 expresses the exact moment when the event occurs and the immediate aftermath. All events in the two last dimensions will be perceived as unforeseen – especially in UN-0 – due to their immediacy. Those living through the event will, over time, gather more information and connect this to previous experiences of what happened. Based on this information, further developments can be better predicted, and actions taken to improve the situation.

These three time dimensions form bases to analyse and discuss experiences and develop training scenarios. When teaching students how to respond to UN-0, it is important to focus on the ability to capture details during chaos, also called “holding the space” for concurrent learning and sensing the present.

Step 2.3: The ‘continuum-field’ 

All events sit in a continuum-field between the fixed extremes of totally unknown and totally known. You can rate events by the degree of (1) Relevance (to the target audience), (2) Possibility (of occurrence), (3) How known (in advance by target audience), (4) Warning signs (scope or number) and (5) Warning time (for given or identified warning signs before). These should inform the planning of learning models, be injected into exercise scripts and form the basis of students’ analysis of their examples.

3. Put feelings into words and aesthetic forms of expression

All events will affect people in one way or another. Some may be terrifying, others pleasant. To prepare students for how they experience and cope with unforeseen events, it is necessary to discuss, and put into words, their own and other people’s feelings. Other forms of expression – drawings, dramatisation, music – can also be used to articulate experiences where words alone fall short.

A consistent exercise is for students to describe which emotions were triggered by certain unforeseen events. To aid awareness-raising, ask students to sort feelings into six groups:

Love – Joy – Surprise – Anger – Sadness – Fear

The educator must always be careful to design progression into the exercises.

4. Support one another

Social interaction, receiving social support, being trusted, and developing a sense of mastery improve the likelihood of individuals being able to handle unforeseen events effectively, for themselves, others and society. So, implement collaborative exercises when topics such as the unforeseen are dealt with. Exercises could be:

  • Encouraging the students to give each other extra praise, say generous things about each other, when they work on exercises.
  • Bring in different forms of communication, imagery, silent or tactic.

Giving social support can be more difficult than you think and must be practised, because it can easily be forgotten when students are concentrating on their own mastery and tasks.

The teacher should observe these processes, and take time out for comments and reflection, where the social support is reduced or has been particularly good. Challenge groups of students with scenarios that contain unforeseen events (in practice) and explore how they work and respond as a team.

5. Ensure ‘The unforeseen’ is included in curricula

This systematic educational work to prepare students for uncertainty should be carried out in stages and be given sufficient time. Exercises can be done several times throughout a year. New unforeseen events will continue to occur, and as students become more familiar with the phenomenon and the concept, they will be able to identify these more precisely, have better routines for how they handle them, and thus learn more.

A university should coordinate teaching on the unforeseen across all subjects or as an interdisciplinary project. With sustainability and mental health issues embedded into many curricula, learning about the unforeseen can form a natural part of these themes.

For a systematic approach, this should be described in the school’s curricula, with an overview of the knowledge, learning objectives, methods, progression, coordination between disciplines as well as evaluation. But these must play on the nature of the unforeseen: improvisation and spontaneity in learning plans and pedagogical practices is important to grasp new learning opportunities as they emerge.

Glenn-Egil Torgersen is professor of educational science at University of South-Eastern Norway (USN), department of educational science, and research leader of The Unforeseen group.


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