Uncertainty Avoidance

Experiment: Follow the trail.

There’s a really interesting collection of research comparing cultures on a set of dimensions. The idea is that it is not very informative to study a single culture. Instead, the intrigue comes from comparing the differences between cultures. I might be tempted to write about all of these in an education context eventually.

Here is the set of dimensions and a comparison of two countries near and dear to my heart. To see a description of all of these, click here.

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They’re all extremely interesting, but I want to look at uncertainty avoidance. From the website, this is defined as “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? Countries exhibiting strong UAI maintain rigid codes of belief and behaviour and are intolerant of unorthodox behaviour and ideas. Weak UAI societies maintain a more relaxed attitude in which practice counts more than principles”  (Hofstede et al, 2010). Some indicators of uncertainty avoidance are the use of government identification cards, the rejection of unorthodox ideas, and rigid belief systems. A higher score means that the culture of the country generally leans more toward avoiding uncertainty. The countries that seems to score lowest on uncertainty avoidance are  the UK, Bhutan, China and the US. Japan has the highest I’ve noticed. Most all countries are in the upper range of the measurement scale. No culture is truly comfortable with uncertainty!

It is logical then, that educators in those countries are also uncomfortable with uncertainty. Countries with high uncertainty avoidance would probably structure their schools in a way that is consistent over a long time, while countries with lower uncertainty avoidance would be open to the idea of constantly changing, flexible, agile, and responsive schools. This fits with the rise of neo-liberal thinking, uncertainty is becoming a fact of school life in the United States and many other countries. A school responsive to parent demands and students needs is considered positively. The responsiveness, continuous development, and drive for improvement that come with embracing neo-liberalism causes a constantly shifting terrain for teachers. But no one enjoys total uncertainty and many countries who are embracing neo-liberalism aren’t comfortable with the uncertainty that comes along with it. The UAE may be the most neo-liberal country in the world with little public service and a very liberal economic approach but, as a culture, they are not that comfortable with uncertainty.

So, where does this leave schools? From my own experience, teachers tend to feel best in predictable situations because the job already has so many elements of uncertainty (we call them “children”). So, in a world where schools are expected to be responsive and continually developing, the uncertainty of modern school environments may have some harsh effects.

Ball (2003) describes the way that constantly changing expectations and programs within schools create anxiety for teachers. “We are unsure what aspects of work are valued and how to prioritize efforts. We become uncertain about the reasons for actions. Are we doing this because it is important, because we believe in it, because it is worthwhile? Or is it being done ultimately because it will be measured or compared? It will make us look good! Do we know we are good at what we do, even if performance indicators tell a different story. Do we value who we are able to be, we are becoming in the labyrinth of performativity? Again, much of this reflexivity is internalized. These things become matters of self-doubt and personal anxiety rather than public debate” (Ball, 2003, p. 220). For teachers, uncertain environments create a system where personal judgement, professional ethos, and common practice are no longer reliable. Teachers lose confidence in their own knowledge and experience. Rather than appreciating differences of opinion, teachers will start to believe that there is no such this as truth. This creates fertile ground for schools to be colonized by new experts, politics, and marketization. 

When the uncertainty around education is increased, we don’t embrace the uncertainty, we find new ways of operating. The most common solutions seem to be increased accountability, evaluation, and standardization. The message of school “reform” swoops in to fix the “problems” of education. It is a saviour discourse that promises to save schools, leaders and teachers and students from failure, from the terrors of uncertainty and from the confusions of policy and from themselves – their own weaknesses” (Ball, 2009, p. 87). The depoliticization of education occurs, starting with the loss of “best practice” and “professional judgement”. Unions are no longer trusted as a set of professionals and professional organizations are demonized as “special interest groups.” This cycle of uncertainty with depoliticization has the effect of de-professionalizing teachers. Teachers lose status as “knowers” and as experts. The challenge for those of us involved in the broader political project of revitalizing issues of teacher professionalism and professional identity is how to facilitate public debate about the nature of teaching. This means addressing issues such as dealing with the challenges of working under conditions of rapid change, ambiguity and uncertainty, while at the same time having a clear and articulated sense of what it means to be a teacher in contemporary society” (Sachs, 2001 p. 159). The discussion about what it means to be a teacher is lacking and uncertainty about the role has eroded meaning from it. 

I’m not sure that I have followed the trail from beginning to end, but there seems to be a pattern. As our society embraces uncertainty, we lose faith in everything, even ourselves. Then we backfill with external controls, trusting those outside of ourselves more than we trust our own judgement to bring ourselves back to a level of comfortable uncertainty. By no means would I advocate that we suddenly proclaim any certainties about education (e.g. “we are the best” “nothing needs to change”), but perhaps we need to be a little less certain about our uncertainty.

Ball, S. J. (2003). The teacher’s soul and the terrors of performativity. Journal of Education Policy, 18(2), 215-228. doi:10.1080/0268093022000043065

Ball, S. J. (2009). Privatising education, privatising education policy, privatising educational research: network governance and the ‘competition state’. Journal of Education Policy, 24(1), 83-99. doi:10.1080/02680930802419474

Hofstede, Geert,  Hofstede,Gert Jan & Michael Minkov (2010). Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind. Revised and Expanded 3rd Edition. New York: McGraw-Hill USA. http://geert-hofstede.com/

Sachs, J. (2001). Teacher professional identity: competing discourses, competing outcomes. Journal of Education Policy, 16(2), 149-161. doi:10.1080/02680930116819

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