The Urgency of Teaching for Uncertainty: It’s a Sign of the Times

By Howard Deitcher

Uncertainty and COVID19

One of the most certain features of the COVID-19 period is the unprecedented level of uncertainty in our lives. Uncertainty is all around us, as the current COVID-19 pandemic has heightened uncertainty over our physical and mental health, the economy, relationships, education, employment, finances, etc.

As human beings, we crave a sense of security. We want to feel safe and maintain a sense of control over our lives. Uncertainty leaves us feeling diminished, stressed, anxious, and powerless. Uncertainty drains us and traps us in a downward spiral of endless “what-ifs” and worst-case scenarios.

Way before the current pandemic, it was clear that while we may not wish to acknowledge it, uncertainty is a natural and unavoidable part of life. On some level, we knew that very little about our lives is constant or totally certain, and while we have control over many things, we can’t control everything that happens to us.

The coronavirus outbreak has emphasized that life can change very quickly and very unpredictably. The COVID-19 pandemic is changing – or has already changed – our collective understanding of uncertainty in ways that we could not have imagined a mere few months ago.

Challenges for Students

Our students are facing new challenges of uncertainty in a host of different areas: age-old dictums that oftentimes, serious sickness is associated with certain age groups or those diagnosed with certain medical issues; familiar school routines; stable social status and economic stability; clear-cut educational roles of teachers, parents, and informal educators.

All of these assumed regularities have been turned upside down during the past few months, and been replaced by new realities that share a common disconcerting theme of uncertainty. Students report that their heightened sense of uncertainty has fueled feelings of fear, stress, and powerlessness. This may well have long-term effects on their academic success, social skills, and mental health.

Embrace Uncertainty as theNew Normal

Uncertainty isn’t all bad. It actually has a lot of advantages too. Whether we want to or not, COVID-19 forces us to live with uncertainty. Instead of stewing in uncertainty’s negative side (stress and disorganization), we may embrace its positive potential (creativity, independent thought, and renewal).

Uncertainty can breed and nourish creativity.

Wrestling with the uncertainty of a knotty challenge encourages students to invest time and energy in order to unpack the problem, analyze its various elements, generate creative solutions, and evaluate their impact. When there are no pat answers, students have the priceless opportunity to actually think for themselves.

Bad uncertainty is destructive. Good uncertainty is constructive.

Ronald Beghetto explains that one of the underlying dangers of teaching for uncertainty is that uncertainty can lead to chaos. At the same time, not all uncertainty leads to disorder. There’s “good uncertainty” and “bad uncertainty” (Beghettto, 2016).

Bad uncertainty does not offer students the necessary structures and support systems that they need in order to grow and develop. A classroom that descends into anarchy and chaos, with paper airplanes flying and students running amok is suffering from bad uncertainty.

On the other hand, good uncertainty provides students with the needed knowledge, skills, and confidence to navigate these unknown waters. When approached in an atmosphere of “good uncertainty,” challenges become enormously valuable as they invite young learners to think in critical ways and constructively confront uncertainty.

Being forced out of routine is a good thing.

We’ve all had those teachers who have been droning on in the same way for the last twenty years. We don’t want to be one of those teachers! Empowering teachers to take risks and swim in unchartered waters is essential for dynamic teaching. Breaking out of same old boring routine is an opportunity for re-evaluation, renewal, change, and growth.

Practical Strategies

The following are practical ways for schools to teach about uncertainty in the current climate:

Israel Engagement

CORONA 19 is dramatically altering Israel travel for Jewish students.

We could set up educational projects for high school students to prepare new models for virtual Israel travel in their schools. What alternate models would be relevant, practical, and worthwhile? How could these adolescents imagine novel and innovative ways to actively engage with Israel?

Alternative Bar/Bat Mitzva Ceremonies

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we mark all life cycle events, including Bar and Bat Mitzva. We could invite middle school students to prepare new forms of commemoration that on the one hand reflect the values of this milestone event, and at the same time replace large public gatherings with meaningful and engaging celebrations. What types of ‘chesed projects’ (kindness and benevolence) could the students envisage? How could we create public recognition and excitement about these young people entering a new life cycle stage?

TeachingGood Uncertainty

Countless Jewish leaders have faced momentous challenges of historical consequence that were ridden with risk, uncertainty, and doubt.

What was their deliberative process in selecting a course of action? What underlying values guided their decisions? With historical hindsight, how were these decisions judged and evaluated?

Study units could examine the following pivotal decisions that transformed Jewish history:

·         Queen Esther’s critical decision to defy the official protocol and to approach King Ahasverosh in order to save the Jews in the Persian empire. (Esther 4:16)

·         Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai’s decision to escape Jerusalem and approach the Roman emperor Vespasian for permission to establish a new center of Jewish learning in Yavne. (Gittin 56a)

·         David ben Gurion’s decision to attack the Irgun forces in the famous Altalena Affair in June 1948.

Revisiting these historical choices is a creative way for students to experience “good uncertainty.” They can get all the benefits of exploring important decisions from the safety of a historical remove and the comfort of their educational settings. Students could undertake educational projects that focus attention on the extraordinary sense of responsibility that these leaders assumed when deciding on the best course of action.


Our current challenge is to live with uncertainty. The time is ripe to openly explore issues of uncertainty in Jewish education.

One of the most profound and influential pedagogues in Jewish history is Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, the eleventh century French commentator known by the acronym Rashi. Rashi writes regarding Genesis 28:5, “I do not know what this teaches us.” Rashi could have simply skipped commenting on this verse, yet, he deliberately chose to teach us the value of uncertainty.

What a powerful message for our times: We can not escape uncertainty. We may and must embrace it.

Rabbi Dr Howard Deitcher is a faculty member of the Seymour Fox School of Education at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the director of the Florence Melton Institute and senior director of the Legacy Heritage Teacher Institutes.