In the classroom, subjects are often presented as settled and complete. Teachers lecture students on the causes of World War I, say, or the nature of matter, as if no further questioning is needed because all the answers have been found.

In turn, students regurgitate what they’ve been told, confident they’ve learned all the facts and unaware of the mysteries that remain unexplored. Without insight into the holes in our knowledge, students mistakenly believe that some subjects are closed. They lose humility and curiosity in the face of this conceit.

But our collective understanding of any given subject is never complete, according to Jamie Holmes, who has just written a book on the hidden benefits of uncertainty. In “Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing,” Holmes explores how the discomforting notions of ambiguity and uncertainty affect the way we think and behave. Confronting what we don’t know sometimes triggers curiosity.

He wants students to grapple with uncertainty to spark their curiosity and better prepare them for the “real world,” where answers are seldom clear-cut or permanent. Whether exploring black holes or a Shakespearean sonnet, students should be comfortable challenging the received wisdom. There’s already a believer of the uncertain in science — Columbia neuroscience professor Stuart Firestein, who argues that “insightful ignorancedrives science.

“We’re much more certain about facts than we should be,” Holmes said. “A lot of this will be challenged, and it should not be embarrassing.”

If students can be made to feel comfortable with uncertainty — if they’re learning in an environment where ambiguity is welcome and they are encouraged to question facts — then they are more apt to be curious and innovative in their thinking.

Approaching knowledge this way is difficult for students and teachers, however, because ambiguity spurs unpleasant feelings. Indeed, studies show that the typical response to uncertainty is a rush for resolution, often prematurely, and heightened emotions.

“Our minds crave closure, but when we latch onto it prematurely we miss beautiful and important moments along the way,” Holmes said, including the opportunity to explore new ideas or consider novel interpretations. And teachers have additional challenges in presenting facts as fluid: appearing less than certain about their field of expertise can feel risky in a classroom of merciless teenagers.

But teachers who hope to inspire curiosity in their students, and to encourage tolerance for ambiguity, can take steps to introduce uncertainty into the classroom. Holmes offers several recommendations.

Address the emotional impact of uncertainty. “The emotions of learning are surprise, awe, interest and confusion,” Holmes said. But because confusion provokes discomfort, it should be discussed by teachers to help students handle the inevitable disquiet. “Students have to grow comfortable not just with the idea that failure is a part of innovation, but with the idea that confusion is, too,” Holmes writes. Teachers can help students cope with these feelings by acknowledging their emotional response and encouraging them to view ambiguity as a learning opportunity.

Assign projects that provoke uncertainty. One way to help students grow more comfortable with confusion is to assign projects that are likely to flummox them. Holmes identifies three techniques for doing so: inviting students to find mistakes; asking them to present arguments for alien viewpoints; and providing assignments that students will fail. “The best assignments should make students make mistakes, be confused and feel uncertain,” he said.

Adopt a non-authoritarian teaching style to encourage exploration, challenge and revision. Teachers who instruct with a sense of humanity, curiosity and an appreciation for mystery are more apt to engage students in learning, Holmes explained. “Those with an outlook of authority and certainty don’t invite students in,” he said. Also, when teachers present themselves as experts imparting wisdom, students get the mistaken idea that subjects are closed. “Teachers should help students find ways to think and learn,” he said. “The best teachers are in awe of their subjects.”

Emphasize the current topics of debate in a field. To give students a clearer sense of the mutability of facts, discuss the ongoing debates among academics and others on some “settled” subjects. Sharing what researchers, historians and theorists are arguing about now makes clear that questioning and challenging facts are what drive discovery.

Invite guest speakers to share the mysteries they’re exploring. In his class on ignorance, Columbia professor Firestein welcomes scientists across a spectrum of fields to talk about the unknowns they’re investigating. Chemists, statisticians, zoologists and others share with students the ambiguities that excite them, opening students’ minds to the vast unknowns waiting to be examined.

Show how the process of discovery is often messy and non-linear. Rather than present breakthroughs as the logical result of a long trek toward understanding, teachers can share with students how discoveries are often made: through trial and error, missteps, happy accidents and chance. Firestein describes scientific discovery as “groping and probing and poking, and some bumbling and bungling, and then a switch is discovered, often by accident, and the light is lit.” All the poking around in the unknown, he adds, is what makes science exhilarating.

How Could This Look At Home?

When Mollie Cueva-Dabkoski was growing up, her mother took her to the library every week to read stories together. When the storytelling ended, her mother asked questions that challenged the narrative and pressed Mollie to reconsider the protagonist’s motives, or to rethink the gender norms.

“She pushed me to question the world around me,” Cueva-Dabkoski said.

Cueva-Dabkoski, however, was troubled by all that she didn’t know. Raised by a single mother in San Francisco, and educated at an underfunded public school nearby, she worried that her ignorance about all manner of subjects would interfere with her ability to perform at college. Cueva-Dabkoski had always been curious and driven, but she doubted whether she possessed sufficient intellectual tools.

Awareness of the gaps in her knowledge spurs Cueva-Dabkoski to learn. So, she decided, “I taught myself how to be a critical thinker.” Today, she’s a junior at Johns Hopkins University, majoring in sociology and public health.

Though Cueva-Dabkoski laments what she calls the “product-driven” nature of higher education, she continues to challenge and explore, inside the classroom and out. As a teenager, Cueva-Dabkoski began to make a list of concepts she wanted to understand by age 20, and she continues to work her way down the list. Some subjects on that list? String theory, democracy in Burma, the history of Bhutan. How to explain her wide-ranging curiosity? “There are big gaps in my knowledge,” she said.

How to Spark Curiosity in Children Through Embracing Uncertainty 21 October,2015Linda Flanagan

  • Aashish Ranga

    Its Really Helpful For Children..::-

  • “Grappling with Uncertainty” should be a subject in schools:

  • Thom Markham

    Every PBL teacher should take note…

  • Great article. Ambiguity is, in itself, actually a fact. And for some people, not all people, the more ambiguity there is they have to be dealing with, the stronger the desire for them to learn what it’s all about. You may try checking my journey to fatherhood at

  • Arraik Cruor

    We live in a world of ambiguity. It makes sense to me that we encourage what this article explores. Being at University has made me realise just how important it is to feel uncertainty. Because it is the very thing that drives our world. If we feel uncomfortable, we feel discouraged and learning becomes difficult. Learning this from a younger age can be extremely helpful.

  • Matthew J. Robison

    It’s a little odd that this is portrayed as “some people” having a new idea. It is *the* idea, continually stymied by those it is inconvenient to. This isn’t the magic of human progress, it’s one small step in the tragedy of what we do to each other for instant gratification.

  • Brandon Booth

    Are you “certain” that we should encourage uncertainty? And I’m not just being snarky. I would prefer to encourage humility, self-reflection, and empathy. All of which are sometimes brought on by facing the limits of my own ability to know, but are more often learned by being “put in our place” relative to truth, authority, beauty, etc. I think this article is actually more on the side of teaching total relativism that destroys any possibility of humility (recognizing I’m in the room with a person of superior skill and knowledge for example), and eliminates empathy (why should I care what you think, it’s *merely* another perspective).

  • Chrissy DiMarco

    I have just experienced the emotions of worry and joy as my students delved into the unknown waters of Windows Movie Maker. The first computer lab session I simply told them to learn by exploring the different features of the program. I guided them toward VideoBlocks and AudioBlocks and encouraged them to practice adding video, audio and text. When it was time to create their Public Service Announcements (PSAs) I could feel the pure panic of the students who were used to things being easy and coming naturally. “I don’t know what to do!” was said frequently, and I calmly reminded them of their task. Create a short film that encourages others to conserve natural resources. They sat down and began working without any idea of what their end product would look like. After 30 minutes they called me over frustrated, “We don’t know what we’re doing.” I told them to go back to the drawing board, their group was so quick to skip the planning step because they were so excited by the use of technology. I experienced helping students cope with feelings of uncertainty. We need to acknowledge their emotional responses and encourage mistakes as a learning opportunity.

  • Louise Conway

    I especially like the point this article makes about talking about the emotional impact of ambiguity. As a teacher who spends my days with 4- 6 year olds, I strive to strike a balance between establishing a fun, warm environment that kids want to walk into each day and giving them opportunities to practice dealing with uncertainty and ambiguity. The best thing I can teach them is that they are capable even when they aren’t sure exactly what to do next. Sometimes this means not answering their questions right away (or at all) and instead celebrating the question itself. Sometimes it means giving them a challenging problem that I know they don’t know how to solve right away. If often means saying, “I don’t know!” and it always means having a pulse on what each student is working on at any given time – a challenge for one student might be a melt down for another, or a piece of cake for another.

    Louise Conway
    UCDS, Seattle

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  • Sheryl Morris

    I love hearing children ask, “Why?”
    Some adults shrink away when they hear the question because they think that they are expected to be able to answer every question; not necessarily so.
    Better, I am learning, it is to wonder and ask questions WITH your children. You can seek answers together or let time pass for them to cogitate over questions and have answers revealed later.

    According to Holmes, one way to inspire curiosity and to encourage tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty in the classroom is to:

    Adopt a non-authoritarian teaching style to encourage exploration, challenge and revision. Teachers who instruct with a sense of humanity, curiosity and an appreciation for mystery are more apt to engage students in learning, Holmes explained. “Those with an outlook of authority and certainty don’t invite students in,” he said. Also, when teachers present themselves as experts imparting wisdom, students get the mistaken idea that subjects are closed. “Teachers should help students find ways to think and learn,” he said. “The best teachers are in awe of their subjects.”

    I recognized myself and my Montessori-inspired theme in just such “appreciation for mystery.”

    If welcome to contribute what we’ve found to work, I’d like to share “SNAP-Scaffolding For Numerical Synapses.”

    If you’re interested in “How to Spark Curiosity in Children Through Embracing Uncertainty” see how to create an environment where questions about their numbers 1-10 are posed and clues are suggested across the curriculum. (Please note that observing each number includes exploring geometric expressions related to each number.)
    Ask, “What do you know about the number one?” and look to art, math, music, science, astronomy, botany, language, life skill activities, and many others for answers.

    Subsequent questions that will puzzle and intrigue:
    “Why are planets, moons, and suns spherical in shape, or near to spherical in shape?”
    “Why do we have two eyes, two ears, two arms and legs?”
    “Why is a dinosaur with three horns on its head called a triceratops?”
    “Why do people talk of ‘the four corners of the earth’?”
    “Why do so many different flowers have five petals?”
    “Why are snowflakes hexagonal?”
    “Why does the Australian flag have seven stars?”
    “Why does the octopus have eight arms?”
    “Why is nine the atomic number of fluorine?”
    “Why do we have ten fingers and ten toes?”

  • Sarah M

    Exploration of the unknown and questioning of accepted beliefs are wonderful avenues to expand thinking and creativity.

    But, and this is a big but – students also need to learn that the world is full of rights and wrongs. That answers to questions are judged. That every idea is not equal. And that knowledge is empowerment and understanding is crucial. And that the world really doesn’t care what they think, but if they can influence the way *others* think, they can make real change come about.

  • Pingback: How teachers can use uncertainty to spark innovation – Tulsa Super Blog()


Linda Flanagan

Linda Flanagan is a freelance writer, researcher, and editor. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Wall St. Journal, Newsweek, Running Times, and Mind/Shift, and she blogs regularly for the Huffington Post. Linda writes about education, culture, athletics, youth sports, mental health, politics, college admissions, and other curiosities. She also reviews books and conducts interviews.

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