Uncertainty as an Opportunity

By Jim Fredricksen

My brother’s oldest daughter started high school this year. We live several states away from one another and early this school year my phone rang in the afternoon. It was my brother.

“Can you help us? Her English teacher is asking her to write an introduction to an essay using a ‘delayed thesis.’ I tried to get it, but I’m not sure I’m explaining it right.”

My brother is a thoughtful guy, an elementary school principal for almost two decades, and he’s skilled at understanding where other people are coming from. Still, he’s stuck.

My niece gets on the phone. “Hi Uncle Jim. We just have to practice this delayed thesis thing.” She reads me an example or two. She’s feeling stuck, and it seems like she just wants to figure out what the teacher wants so she can finish her homework and not talk to her dad and uncle about her school work. I worry that she’s taken on a fixed mindset, looking for just the “right” way to do it – “right” meaning that she’s trying to please her teacher, her father, and now her uncle, rather than thinking about how this move can help her and her audience when she writes.

I try to re-direct her to see a pattern in the examples and why the writers might have organized their writing in the way that they have.

“Most introductions,” I say, “move the reader from understanding a bigger context, a problem the writer notices in that context, and then the writer’s response to that problem.”

She doesn’t really say anything, and I imagine she’s looking at her example paragraphs, trying to connect my language with the language her teacher is using.

We hang up, so she can try to write a couple of paragraphs on her own. She’ll call later to let me hear what she’s written.

Yellow diamond road sign that reads, "Uncertainty ahead."

Embracing Uncertainty

Writing is a process filled with uncertainty, and how we deal with that uncertainty tells us a lot about who we are as writers.

Sometimes that uncertainty comes from thinking that writing is solely a way to demonstrate what we already know rather than seeing writing as a way to discover and learn what we think and know and feel (see examples of more experienced writers talking about this here and here and here). Other times that uncertainty comes after we discover what we want to say, but we might not be sure how to organize it in a way that best helps our audience (e.g., what is already familiar or unfamiliar to the audience; what are the attitudes of our audience). Besides the uncertainty any writer can face, writing in school can add layers of uncertainty for student writers, because they’re not only trying to figure out what to say and how to organize it, but they are often worried if they are writing in the way that their teachers expect.

As a teacher of writers, I’m interested in how writers respond to this uncertainty. I’m interested in helping each writer see the choices available to them, which in turn, helps me know whether or not they believe they can grow as writers.

Peter Johnston in Opening Minds and Carol Dweck in Mindset each write about this in terms of the “fixed mindset and traits” versus the “dynamic mindset and performance.”

The fixed mindset is one that says, “I’m not a good writer, and I never will be.” The dynamic mindset is one that says, “I’m not a good writer, yet.”

As a teacher and as a parent, how do we know if young people are taking on a growth or fixed mindset? How might we cultivate the dynamic mindset in the young people in our lives so they can see that change and growth is possible? How might we create the conditions in our conversations with young people so that they see it’s okay to try something new, to feel like they have a legitimate stake in what they are trying so that the uncertainty and struggle is worth it?

I wonder about these questions as I wait for the phone to ring.  When my niece calls me back, she reads a couple of paragraphs that sound a lot like the examples her teacher asked her to try. I’m not sure, though, what she’s taking away from the exchange or exercise. Did our conversation cultivate a fixed mindset where she’s just looking for what the adults want her to do? Or, did this lay the groundwork so that she can transfer what she’s learned to a future situation? How does she see herself as a learner and as a writer? Did we–her teacher, her father, and her uncle–model a “growth” mindset in how we framed our questions?

Even now, months later, it’s hard for me to know for sure. Feeling uncertain is something my brother, my niece, and I all navigate together.

This feeling of not knowing if we’re on the same page, but slowly working through it with our questions and prior experiences, by talking through examples and by pointing out what we notice all help us negotiate what the “delayed thesis” might mean and what it might do for the writer and the reader of a piece.

This feeling of uncertainty is a big part of learning to write, and it’s central to helping others think through their choices as writers. How we respond to this uncertainty, I would argue, is more important for my niece to learn than a delayed thesis. It’s more important for the adults in her life to show how uncertainty can be an opportunity for writers to ask questions, work with others, make and share attempts, and listen for feedback that helps a writer with his or her goals and purposes.

Jim Fredricksen (@jimfredricksen) is associate professor of English at Boise State University. A former middle school teacher, he works with K-12 colleagues and students as a thinking partner interested in how they make sense of their situations and choices. He co-directs the Boise State Writing Project, a site of the National Writing Project.

19 thoughts on “Uncertainty as an Opportunity

  1. “This feeling of uncertainty is a big part of learning to write, and it’s central to helping others think through their choices as writers. How we respond to this uncertainty, I would argue, is more important for my niece to learn than a delayed thesis. It’s more important for the adults in her life to show how uncertainty can be an opportunity for writers to ask questions, work with others, make and share attempts, and listen for feedback that helps a writer with his or her goals and purposes.”

    Well said, The feeling of uncertainty is the essence of what being a writer means…finding out what you think by writing what you think is the key to helping all writers, especially adolescents coming into their own, become healthy, happy and productive human beings who love to write and read for writing and readings sake – not to fill in the blanks or feed a formula.

    Kudos to Jim Frederickson for such a thoughtful and perceptive piece.

    Jeff Kaplan
    University of Central Florida, Orlando
    February 15, 2014

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  3. Jim, I really resonated with the following passage:

    “How might we create the conditions in our conversations with young people so that they see it’s okay to try something new, to feel like they have a legitimate stake in what they are trying so that the uncertainty and struggle is worth it?”

    I find that one of my favorite responses to students is “I don’t know,” but not in a careless or dismissive way, rather as an invitation to explore and learn. It is always followed-up with something like “I think you should give it a try because I’m really curious to hear how it works” or “I bet other students are struggling with the same thing and what you discover may be helpful.” I often undertake the challenge/struggle along side a student and we compare notes. When students see their teachers situated as uncertain beings, they see authenticity in the experience. Learning is simply a lifelong process of trying to make things that are uncertain more certain!

    Thanks for posting, Jim. Genuine stuff!

  4. It’s interesting that Jim’s own essay here involves a delayed thesis–it opens with a story that I assume served as the dissonant event that begat the ideas eventually related. I suspect that such a strategy could be taught to kids like his niece, although presumably wasn’t. (I think it could also be taught to potential educational bloggers; I often hear colleagues say that they don’t think they could easily write essays for broad audiences, yet they often tell stories and derive insights from them.)

    So, if there’s a subtheme, it might be that uncertainty can be a great catalyst for thinking, as long as uncertainty about things like proper form don’t become obstacles because the emphasis is on the form rather than the potential for thinking. It’s also a cautionary tale about emphasizing form without linking it strategically to the thinking that form embodies, thereby bypassing the processes involved.

    Thanks for provoking us with this compelling essay.

  5. Nice post. Having some distance from a teaching situation makes a difference.
    You also point up how hard it is to write a good assignment and to clarify what we mean. The teacher is wise to think about various intro tactics — that’s a plus — but dissecting it — ah, there’s the challenge.

  6. This post is so timely. Teaching students to write is one of the most rewarding, frustrating, and time consuming activities. I wanted to share my story about teaching delayed thesis to a group of juniors and what I learned about how my students think.

    When I introduced the delayed thesis to my students earlier this year, one girl asked me why they had never been taught about it before. She said it made so much more sense to arrive at a thesis after having explored her topic from a [research or inquiry] question. She was very excited to try this new thing. I was reminded in that moment of working in the writing center in college, and trying to help a Chinese student understand why American academic essays have the thesis in the first paragraph. She was not nearly as excited about moving her thesis as my student in junior English. My excited junior in high school was beginning to understand something the Chinese student had somewhat ingrained in her: the delayed thesis reflects how we think. We are curious creatures. We want to know things, and we will search for answers to our questions, which is exactly what a delayed thesis does.

    Not everyone in the class agreed was as excited about trying this new kind of essay structure. They said writing a delayed thesis seemed hard–they hadn’t tired it yet as of this conversation, though we had read several sample essays. What I found was those who didn’t like the idea of the delayed thesis liked having a template, They wanted to know what I wanted and to follow that template. I wanted them to think about audience and purpose. You see the disconnect? I MADE them TRY it, and about half of the dissenters began to consider the delayed thesis as an option for their writing.

    One of the most challenging things about teaching writing is getting students to believe they can grow and change as writers, and I think you made that point very well in this post. I always hope they can see their growth, because I certainly can, but uncertainty is a big part of teaching, too. I ask myself: Are students just going through the motions–making something that looks like my examples–or are they really trying something new because they want to see how it works and how it might work in other situations? Many of my students are teacher-pleasers, so it can be difficult to break through their compliant shells and get them to work through the writing process with the goal of growing as writers.

    One last thing: I think it is important for teachers to have a bit of uncertainty when we are working with students. If we are not asking ourselves how well a lesson is going, or questioning the understanding of our students, it is easy to become complacent. I don’t think uncertainty is a bad thing. It is a reflective tool we can use to ensure we are doing the best we can for our students.

  7. Thanks, everyone, for taking the time to read and respond to the post. The comments you made help me think about a few things.

    Marilyn has me thinking about distance and how it helps us see things that we might not be able to see when we are in the middle of a situation. For instance, I have no idea where the teacher in this story was headed with my niece’s class. Maybe the assignment was simply an opportunity to practice one of many possible strategies students could decide to use in their papers. Maybe an assignment like this one early in the school year was intended to help students think about why writers might make the choices they do when they write for different reasons and for different audiences. Maybe the assignment was part of a larger strategy to help students think of essay writing beyond a formula. Maybe it was something I can’t see. My distance from the classroom situation made the conversation with my niece an uncertain one, because I was not entirely sure where the teacher was headed. I suspect parents face this kind of situation a lot when they talk with their children. At the same time, my distance from the classroom situation gave me a chance to ask my niece questions that required her to explain things to me. I could model questions that she might ask her teacher. I could ask her what-if kind of questions. I could ask her what she thought of the drafts she wrote: what she liked about them and what she wasn’t sure about. I could start a conversation that might help her see what’s worth noticing and what questions she might want to ask herself as she wrote.

    Jeff, Micah, and Shawna have me thinking about students’ expectations for certainty. When we create or problem solve we face some moments of uncertainty and those moments are invitations to discover and to be surprised. At the same time, too much uncertainty can overwhelm us, and we need to have something to hold on to during those times. One struggle in working with people who are overwhelmed with uncertainty is helping them to see a bigger, broader purpose or a set of principles and values that they can use as a sort of compass to help them work their way through their uncertainty. Peter points this out in his comment that moments of uncertainty can help make our expectations and assumptions visible. If we’re uncertain, what we expect and what we assume might not be happening. If we can’t name it, then it’s harder to know how to navigate it. The process of writing, like any creative process, becomes a chance to see where we have opportunities to discover, to learn something new about ourselves, but it takes practice and guidance from those who might be more experienced, comfortable, or aware of what might be happening.

    Thanks again for reading, for adding your ideas to the conversation, and for helping me think of some things in a new way. I appreciate it greatly.

  8. I read this as a writer who just finished trying to review articles about fraction instruction. I am older than my teachers but if I could have called my Uncle Jim I would have. Am I doing this right? The feeling is like searching for the lights in dark room frantically feeling the walls but not daring to stand free. Danger everywhere. At this age the feeling was also irritating. I also read it as a fourth grade teacher helping my students discover the stories inside them. Just Friday I was thinking I was doing something wrong because so many are eagerly, confidently, and happily writing crazy stories, even on their recess. Scary, gory, I don’t know how meaningful, but now you have given me a new lens. They are not uncertain, and maybe for right now I will just let them relish in this state.

  9. Accepting uncertainty and recognizing the power of discovery is something I’ve been working on within myself and with my 28 fourth graders. I see their faces scrunch up when they are struggling, and I know what they are feeling. At this point in the year, some of them are starting to believe my talk about “yet.” At the same time, I look at myself as their instructor, knowing I still struggle with the confidence I want to have to teach them to be writers. Sometime, after I congratulate myself for providing ample opportunities to put their thoughts on a page in some organized manner, I panic because I didn’t have them use the green, red, and yellow highlighters my school issued to teach the formula for perfect essay.

  10. Thank you for this. I’m in the last semester of an MA TESOL program and I’m student teaching in a community college ESL Introduction to the Essay class. The distance that you mention above is something that frightens me; as I am teaching a class I’m sort of walking around blind in a dark room, as a poster mentioned above, because I don’t know exactly what my mentor teacher has in mind for the lesson and I don’t have enough experience to know exactly what the students need. However, after reading this I realized that I need to look at this as an opportunity rather than a challenge, and that I need to let student feedback guide my teaching.

    I’m going to save this article because I think it might make an interesting reading in preparation for the essay that the students have to write at the end of the semester to accompany their portfolios; they’ll be prompted to think about the writing process and also, perhaps, be comforted to see that writing instruction involves uncertainty on both the teaching and the learning side.

  11. Everyone is a storyteller given the opportunity to tell their story. Teachers create those opportunities.

    After almost 25 years working for one company, I’m jumping into M.Ed. studies. I see ability and talent and motivation, but also the uncertainty about results that experienced teachers in our group face daily in their careers. As an associate editor of a globally known dictionary staff, I am and have been a part of a small core group that is accountable for producing consistently high-quality products. There were times earlier in my career when I would wake up during a project worrying about whether some specific thing had been done or thinking of some one thing more that still could be done. Anxious. Worried. Excited. I’m looking forward to going back to that state of being.

  12. Seems to me that Penny Kittle says it best in Write Beside Them…kids will write well if we invite them authentically–with purpose–to do so. Most critical is authentic modelling from a teacher who also loves, struggles and shares his/her writing. Penny also reminds us that we should be teaching life writing–not school writing. (and if you’d like to hear more of Penny’s message about nurturing lifelong writers, come up to Sudbury in N. Ontario for the most amazing literacy conference on the planet: readingrocksthenorth.org)

  13. I really appreciate the comments. Angela and Nancy, you each have me thinking about how teachers and parents can scaffold “uncertainty” in some ways. How do we know how much uncertainty is ok for learners and for how long do we allow certainty to play out? In some ways, it seems like one trait of an “authentic task” or “authentic process” might be how much uncertainty someone experiences. When I think about providing choice for my students, I often face resistance from the students who are good at the game of school – they’re often great students but not independent learners. When they face choices, they experience some uncertainty about what they want to do and why they want to do it, and the way they grapple with that moment is to rely on me, the teacher, to tell them what to do. I have to read that occasion to see if the learner is overwhelmed or if I can help narrow the choice or if I can model some of the questions I would ask myself in a similar moment.

    It’s funny, because I talk about uncertainty with the pre-service teachers I work with as they student teach. Teachers face a considerable number of moments when we have to interpret how individuals and groups are responding to one another, to the task, to the larger class community, to the teacher, and more. Like Debra seems to be experiencing, sometimes we can see those moments as a frightening thing, because we’re not sure what to pay attention to in order to find our way. Other times we might be able to step back, read the situation, and consider multiple possibilities. As a teacher educator, sometimes I have to comfort people when they feel a big disruption or discomfort; other times I have to disturb people when they’re feeling comfortable. Knowing when and how to do this is a nuanced, interpretative act that involves a whole host of factors. But like Marla and Debra and others mention, learning how to navigate those kind of moments when we’re not sure is something that can be exciting, productive, and generous.

    Thanks again for reading and commenting and sharing. It’s all helpful for me as I think about how processes like writing, teaching, and learning provide moments to practice learning be ok with not knowing, to practice taking on a mindset that opens up possibilities.

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