Navigating Uncertainties

When Teaching Mirrors Learning Series 

Unpacking The DNA of Learning Blueprint


     Each article in this 15 part series systematically unpacks the DNA of Learning Blueprint for kindling the spirit of learning and re-starting our passion as educators.  The collective series will represent a comprehensive outline of fundamental requirements for timeless learning across ages and disciplines.

Part 3:  Requisite 1: Navigating Uncertainties

     The DNA of Learning Blueprint (below) is predicated on the explicit teaching of three powerful requisites; Navigating Uncertainties, the Art of Relating, and Cognition.  Each contributes an essential part of what it takes for any age student through adulthood, to build capacities for success across many facets of living.  These must be directly taught through the P-12 years such that all learners will benefit from expanding these requisites and develop the skills to embrace the opportunities and challenges they will not only face through their years of schooling, but throughout their lives.


Life’s Uncertainties

     Have you ever thought about why some of us can navigate successfully through the unexpected happenings in our daily life?  These appear in many forms:  a difficult morning…yes, it’s the flat tire as you walk out the door to go to work; the birthday party that was just moved to your house with two hours’ notice; difficult news; uninteresting content with a test at the end of the class; the two-year old’s outburst at the restaurant; and the proverbial bad-hair day!  Navigating uncertain times is one of life’s mainstays.  Success and confidence depend on developing the skills needed to problem solve for solutions.



     Our educational landscape has increased in complexities, leaving leaders uncertain about solutions to meet student  needs for their future.   The culture of schools has affected the structures of the organization as well as the scope of diverse leaning needs, shift in curriculum foci, and the impact of technology on  learning and instructional pedagogy. These uncertainties have increased, coming from conflicting information; differing perspectives; underlying beliefs; novel occurrences and the impact of 21st century unknowns. Navigating these uncertainties will require our schools to focus instruction on the deep thinking around problem solving.  Shifting from getting the answer as quick as possible, to understanding and learning the skills needed to solve problems in a variety of settings and contexts, is critical for a successful future.  In a society that relishes “quick fixes” our teaching will require a focus on essential skills, competencies and big ideas in learning.  This shift must become the focus of andragogy and pedagogy.

     For several years, we have heard the importance of teaching the next generation of learners the 21st century skills, such as Many have referred to them as the 4 C’s: critical thinking (problem solving), communication, collaboration, and creativity (AZED 2017). Teaching these skills to the extent needed for deep thinking and transference has been undermined by trend setting marketing campaigns. programs. We have been wooed into programs with the assurance of anchoring activities to problem solving skills, but bypassed organic and personalized applications across varied contexts in favor of sanitized weekly lessons, often out of context.  Problem solving is a lifelong competency that everyone—at all ages—and in all walks of life—across a host of situations, will benefit from mastering.

     If there’s one constant in our future, it is that we will be challenged—often—and in many ways!  Are all at school taught ways of dealing with interruptions to expected outcomes?  When the curtain opens, we must be problem solvers throughout each day, digging beneath symptoms to identify causes. Some issues will be minor, some substantial.  Attitudes, behaviors and struggles in the day’s lesson must first begin with content that is relevant to students.   Mistakes and challenges are to be respected as opportunities for growth.  When we replace “what is happening?” with “why is this happening,” “what is this trying to teach me?” and “what is our known, expected response when a disruption happens?” our disposition toward problem solving shifts.  Explicitly  modeling how to engage in supportive problem solving is timeless. 


Coaching Uncertainties

     We persistently hear “I don’t know,” “I can’t,” or experience other behaviors that exhibit a lack of capacity to navigate uncertain moments.    As we or a student becomes “stuck,” what do we do?  Where do we begin?  How do we become un-stuck?  Often the proverbial carrot or stick is administered.  Manipulation/control is used to quell the issue.  However, we all know such responses are temporary, unresolved, and exhaustingly repetitive.  We tell students to problem solve, but do we teach it or model it within context?  As a situation presents itself, do we develop a process with the students to ensure transparency? Do we develop a process collaboratively with students, so they understand why such thinking is important?   Building student-managed competencies around identifying the problem and knowing how to begin to address it will require explicit teaching and modeling. This teaching involves:

  • Understanding why it is important to clearly identify the issues
  • Teaching strategies on how to analyze the issues
  • Teaching students to plan and make decisions about options for getting un-stuck are imperative for self-regulated behaviors.   


Teachers begin by making their uncertainties public. They have the courage to become learners with the students by stating why the circumstance is troublesome, and modeling how their thinking evolves.  Demonstrating with and for learners the process of 1) identifying the pattern that has been interrupted (the perceived problem), 2) why it needs to be addressed, and 3) openly analyzing (unpacking) ideas, perspectives, options, and causes to model ways of tackling challenges.  

     There are many problem-solving approaches.  Most outline steps such as define the problem; gather information; generate possible solutions; weigh each option’s benefits and shortcomings; and then decide, do and evaluate (Information Children 2012).  A simple, clear, articulated process must be practiced by all.

     As early as three weeks into home-schooling in the pandemic, I saw fear in my granddaughter’s eyes.  The barrage of news had already begun to take a toll on her wellbeing.  Together we problem solved her all-consuming worries.  (Step 1) I started by saying, “I’m noticing you are distracted.  What’s happening?”  Welling up with tears Caitlyn looked down and said, “I don’t want anybody to die.”  I suggested we talk this through so we could both understand the problem she was experiencing.  She continued, saying that the “TV” kept talking about people everywhere dying and that she couldn’t see her friends because it wasn’t safe.  She couldn’t see her great-grandmother because she didn’t want to be the reason for her to die.  With a bit more exploration, we both decided that people in general—and Caitlyn in particular—had become afraid to leave their homes, go to stores, be around other people.  For her this meant she could not safely see her friends, go to school or see other family members.  She was scared. so I suggested we gather some information (Step 2).  We listed all the information we could find about the virus, sorting it into categories of concerns; social concerns; emotional concerns, health concerns, and other factors.  (Step 3) Once we had information organized, we looked it over to determine if some factors might be more important than others.  We then generated a list of things we would be sure NOT to do, a list we wanted to do and a third list of possible options.  This produced some criteria to apply to our ideas and options, such as “What do we feel would be an interesting thing to do?” , “How close to others are we willing to get?”  and “What could we do where there were no or few people?”  (Step 4) Now that we had ideas, we began brainstorming and prioritizing which ones we thought would be of interest, fun to do, as well as related to some of the assigned schoolwork.  (Step 4) We chose to go on “field trips” each week.  Using our criteria and priority list we decided that a trip to a local fishery would be a good place to start… no one would be there.  It was outside and we could keep our distance as needed, etc.  The Shy Beaver Trout Farm was a delightful first trip.  We walked about, discussed types of fish, habitats, their growth, life cycles, the purpose of hatcheries, and more.  We developed questions about the hatchery that we would explore upon return home.  (Step 5) When we were in the car headed back, we discussed and evaluated our trip, both agreeing that it was not only safe, but also interesting and we learned a lot!

     The next trip was a walk in the woods, then a trip to have lunch—always following our guidelines.  Soon, Caitlyn began to understand that amidst our fears we can address our concerns directly and come to exercise choices that meet our needs. Our role as educators can make all the difference regarding student stressors! What this means to our present practice is a shift from a fixed “way of being” to one that employs a process for exploring why things are happening before concluding and administering consequences.


Moving to Tomorrow… the shift is to engage students in the process of problem solving

     Step 1: Consciously pause to identify and define problems with students. This transparency is critically important.  By doing so, you are modeling a process to solve problems by seeking to understand underlying causes before attempting a solution & consequences

     Step 2:  Navigate by facilitating conversations with students: “I need your help in understanding why we keep having trouble with this. Let me log your thoughts.”

     Step 3:  Keep your eye on the purpose and intent of the work.  A collaborative conversation generates possible solutions and buy-in. There is no judgment on students’ input. The role of the teacher is to understand the students thinking around the logic of perceived solutions. “That’s an interesting thought Joe!  I never would have thought of that. Help me understand how you got there?”

     Step 4:  Weigh the value and shortcomings of the solutions generated from the students. Modeling critical thinking will help students begin to develop analyzing skills. “Joelle, what are the pros and cons of your choice?”

     Step 5:  With the students, develop a plan on how the solutions will be implemented and when evaluating the success will take place.  “Jimmy, what are your next steps and how will you know it is working or not?”  “When shall we discuss this again?”

     Navigating uncertainties will take skill development and time. Inviting students to learn how to begin to analyze their uncertainties and move from “I don’t know”, or “I don’t care”, to engagement in a process, will lead to self-directed learners!  Efficient and effective problem solving is a catalyst for perseverance, resilience, and timeless learning–with a huge return on investment.  Too much is at stake for YOUR class, YOUR organization, YOUR satisfaction at work… and most importantly THEIR learning.  Shortcuts will not make the difference needed!

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* AZED-Arizona Department of Education (2017).  The 4 C’s to 21st Century Skills.  Grant project awarded by the US Government under the “You for Youth” program.

* Information Children 2012. 5-steps to Problem Solving.   Simon Fraser University, Dis2 #133, Burnaby, BC, V5A 1S6.