TEACHING IN THE TIME OF COVID 19 (PART 2) -On Teaching Uncertainty-

Ioana Negru, Lucian Blaga University of Sibiu

Lia Alexandra Baltador, Lucian Blaga University of Sibiu

 

The Collins and Thesaurus Dictionary (1987: 1088) defines uncertainty as ‘ambiguity’, ‘confusion’, ‘dilemma’, ‘doubt’, ‘hesitancy’, ‘lack of confidence’, ‘perplexity’, ‘puzzlement’, ‘scepticism’, ‘state of suspense’, ‘unpredictability’, ‘vagueness’.  In economics, the term ‘uncertainty’ is defined in the context of decision theory and it is often conflated with risk. The Austrian economists believe that the future is impossible to predict and believe in (radical) uncertainty; Keynes, Shackle, Lachmann and Hayek are important heterodox economists who have all showcased the role of knowledge and uncertainty to be crucial within economic analysis. But students in general find it difficult to grasp the concept of uncertainty and the question becomes how can we teach uncertainty to students? How can we prepare our students to cope in a world that involves crises, change, transformation and ultimately, uncertainty?

Professor Hofstede’s research consists of a model that addresses comparisons between cultures based on six dimensions: power distance, individualism versus collectivism, feminity versus masculinity, uncertainty avoidance, long term orientation versus shirt term normative orientation and indulgence versus restraint (see https://hi.hofstede-insights.com/national-culture). As mentioned in the first part of our blog on Teaching in the Time of COVID-19, given Romania’s profile, and according to Hofstede, the uncertainty avoidance index is very high (90 out of 100 max). According to the same website cited above: “The Uncertainty Avoidance dimension expresses the degree to which the members of a society feel uncomfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity. The fundamental issue here is how a society deals with the fact that the future can never be known: should we try to control the future or just let it happen?”

In other words, there is a search for certainty and a certain rigidity in the attitudes and principles of individuals populating those societies that have a high uncertainty avoidance index and an opposite attitude of relaxation within societies with a weak uncertainty avoidance index. This makes us question the quest for certainty that we notice within the economics profession that is heavily preoccupied with making predictions, despite the actual health and economic crisis showcasing the presence of uncertainty and the short application span of various economic measures. This highlights a lack of epistemic humility within the economics profession that is indeed worrying.

Based on Roth (2016: pg 10) and Hofstede (see above), there are certain differences between societies with strong and weak uncertainty avoidance regarding the relationship and expectations student/teacher.

 

Source: Marija Roth, 2016: pg 10

In other words, in societies with strong uncertainty avoidance the teacher represents an authority of knowledge and very often teaching takes place ex cathedra, whilst epistemic humility and modesty is allowed/respected in cultures with weak uncertainty avoidance.

Uncertainty can also be related to processes of change, both at the level of the individual and the level of society, involving high degrees of stress. In terms of the educational environment in Romania, the characteristics of a high-avoidance uncertainty index can be found in the pressure on teachers to be ‘fountains of information’, but this information is not necessarily transformed into teaching practices that result in students questioning the information and overcoming the ‘duality’ level of black and white answers or dual thinking. What is rewarded is theoretical knowledge and fixed answers. Very often students prefer very conservative types of written exams based on theoretical questions or multiple-choice questions and feel very uncomfortable with essay-based exams or case-studies analysis based exams.

There is an impressive discussion in educational studies about the skills we should convey to students in the 21st century, in a continuously changing environment. How can we teach our students to cope with continuous change in the labour market, to learn to deal with uncertainty and adapt to new situations? These are difficult questions and they involve multiple answers. Marija Roth (ibid.)  talks about teaching student intercultural competences, which will, of course, empower students at the end of their studies and prepare them for the life within a multicultural society. She also discusses the role of creativity. For us, it is very important to reward innovation in students, and to enable an open/pluralist/critical-thinking mind that will sustain students to cope with the new challenges they will face once they complete their studies. In truth, we do not know what the world will look like next year, let alone in 10-20 years, what the job market will be like and what challenges our students will face. But the capacity to adapt to unknown situations and outcomes will definitely work miracles!

References:

Roth, M. (2016), “The Skills needed to cope with changes”, 9th NEPC SUMMERS SCHOOL 2016: Managing Change and Uncertainty: Education for the Future Shkembi Kavajes I Durres 3rd – 9th July 2016;

Mcleod, T.W. (1987), The Collins and Thesaurus Dictionary, London and Glasgow: Collins.

Website: https://hi.hofstede-insights.com/national-culture, accessed 4th of May 2020.

 

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