The paradoxical relationship of Management Teachers to uncertainty

Classrooms are unpredictable places at the best of times, but over the last year, teachers and learners have faced a whole new level of uncertainty. How can we live with this and learn from it, ask Michel Fiol, Kristine de Valck and Carolina Serrano-Archimi?

Whereas in the 1960s business and management teachers suggested their students should learn to master uncertainty when exercising their profession (with the help of management instruments like plans, budgets, and reporting), those of the end of the twentieth century rather invited their students to adapt permanently to uncertainty. In the first case, uncertainty was a constraint whose effects had to be limited, while in the second case it became a source of opportunities to explore new, challenging yet promising horizons.

The rigour needed to control uncertainty was replaced by a need for flexibility in uncertain times. Today, business and management teachers agree that uncertainty had a significant influence on the art of leadership. Nevertheless, two previous currents of thought still coexist: some advocate the implementation of new management tools (ERP, big data) to contain uncertainty, while others recommend learning to live with it.

How do business and management teachers deal with uncertainty?

However, if there is one context that business and management teachers – whatever the business field – particularly dislike within their own profession, it is uncertainty. Research conducted in the context of the International Teachers Programme (ITP) confirms this. Business and management teachers find it difficult to live with uncertainty in the classroom. As a result, they try to master it while being aware that they are unable to do so. They then feel a double frustration: the strong anguish of being permanently confronted with uncertainty and the fact that they realise that they have a lot of trouble managing it. Few accept uncertainty as a challenging dimension of teaching or try to learn to cope with it.

This research has attempted to highlight the principles that underlie the relationships maintained by 88 business and management teachers of 28 different nationalities, of all ages, gender and business fields, with seven components of their professional universe: 1) the department to which they belong (including colleagues), 2) students, 3) themselves, 4) the teaching task, 5) emotions, 6) uncertainty and 7) knowledge. The methodology for obtaining results was based on a questionnaire and an individual in-depth interview. In the questionnaire, each teacher was asked to rate the importance (on a 10-point scale) of these principles for them, first at a “principle” level and second, how they actually put this principle into practice in their teaching. Twelve principles were associated with each component.

Of the seven components studied, the most challenging component to deal with while teaching is the relationship to uncertainty. Overall, the six principles relating to the need to master uncertainty were considered important or very important by a majority of the teachers; while the six relating to the need to constantly adapt to uncertainty were considered to be of little or no importance.

71.5% of the teachers state that control of uncertainty is very important or important to them, as it allows them to feel reassured in the classroom, to be able to devote their energy to the transfer of knowledge, to carry out the teaching scenario as planned in terms of time and content, and to have control over all the elements involved (content, learners, themselves, teaching material). 82% of the teachers find that their need to control uncertainty is constantly undermined in the classroom and very difficult to implement in practice. They feel disconcerted, even helpless when confronted with the many events that regularly disrupt the planned progress of their teaching (e.g., students asking an unexpected question; students who have not prepared pre-assignments; dysfunctional classroom equipment); they are unable to cope with them.

Faced with this difficulty in mastering uncertainty in the practical exercise of their profession, what can business and management teachers do to deal with it?

Those who can no longer bear uncertainty seek out opportunities to teach very small groups, in doctoral programs for example, where they have the impression that the true value of their strong expertise is recognised and that their pedagogical qualities of adaptation are less solicited.

Half of the teachers surveyed (49%) would like to further strengthen their control of uncertainty when preparing their classes. To avoid the negative impacts of facing uncertainty, they try to imagine the possible causes and anticipate the effects when preparing for their classes. They are tempted to intensify the quantity of content taught, to raise the level of content-related demand, to over-structure the framework of their interventions, to reduce the possibilities of interaction with the learners, and to have a timing-constraint posture. Indeed, this willingness to control the whole teaching environment can transform rigour into rigidity.

Only 12 teachers (13.5%) recognise the importance of developing both attitudes: mastering uncertainty whenever possible, and also adapting to uncertainty, i.e., assuming it is normal that many unexpected events will emerge in the classroom, accepting they may be destabilised by learners’ questions, learning to manage their stress in order to make interactions with learners more fluid, accepting confrontations of points of view, questioning and modifying the planned teaching scenario on the spot, or becoming agile in dealing with the unexpected. In short, accepting their own vulnerability.

Finally, only two teachers out of the 88 who took part in the survey stated that they were able to put into practice both attitudes: control of uncertainty and adaptation to uncertainty. They recognise these as opposites (i.e., a focus on the first tends to hide the other), but also as complementary (i.e., the two reinforce each other by mixing rigour and flexibility). Willingly flexible in the face of unexpected events, they recognise that this commitment to constantly adapting to circumstances can be transformed into a dynamic force in the teaching practice.

In summary, these results show the extent to which the relationship with uncertainty is difficult for these 88 teachers. Half of them hope to control it even more to avoid having to face it. A small minority recognise that it is essential to develop both attitudes – both having control over uncertainty and accepting to live with it. The rest feel lost, or deny uncertainty and suffer the situation with abnegation.

Uncertainty as an integral part of teaching

However, if teaching is understood as the preparation and implementation of learning situations, considering and dealing with uncertainty becomes an integral part of teaching. This process can be captured by integrating three approaches that address the different key elements of the teaching environment: techno-pedagogy, psycho-pedagogy and socio-pedagogy. Techno-pedagogy is concerned with defining learning objectives with regard to the audience, structuring a relevant and flexible pedagogical design to achieve these objectives, and evaluating the knowledge and/or skills acquired by the learners.

Techno-pedagogy helps reassure the teacher by developing a clear learning-teaching plan as a reference to refer to without becoming a rigid framework. Having a teaching plan doesn’t guarantee that it will be deployed as expected and planned, which is why the techno-pedagogical approach appears to be a necessary condition for a class preparation by considering in advance the possible unexpected events that may occur in the classroom, but it is not a sufficient condition. The real learning-teaching situation is made while delivering the session, and it will more or less deviate from the initial plan.

This is when the second approach to the learning-teaching process comes into play: psycho-pedagogy. Psycho-pedagogy has two components: behavioural and clinical. Both will help the teacher to understand and manage, in situ, the variables relating to the actors and their interactions. The behavioural component helps teachers deal with the conscious issues of legitimacy, uncertainty, vulnerability, stress, conflict and agility. The clinical component focuses on the unconscious processes taking place in the classroom. Finally, the third approach to the process is socio-pedagogy, which helps the teacher to identify the environmental, cultural and institutional characteristics that can either accentuate or reduce the fear of uncertainty.

These four insights from adult pedagogy can help teachers learn both to reduce uncertainty as much as possible before entering the classroom, but also to consider it as a source of agility and acceptance of our vulnerability in action. These have become even more important since the pandemic and the massive integration of online teaching, thus further increasing the levels of uncertainty for both teachers and learners.

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