Unknown Unknowns

“Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.”

I have been reminded of Donald Rumsfeld’s memorable response on two separate occasions this week: firstly, in a conversation with an Upper Sixth pupil who was telling me about his EPQ on whether Tony Blair was justified in his decision to invade Iraq in 2003; secondly, when reading an article on uncertainty in yesterday’s Sunday Times by the journalist and author Matthew Syed.

Syed’s thesis is simple but persuasive: in so many spheres of public debate, most notably on COVID-19, we are “confronted with a range of competing certainties” presented by leading figures with absolute confidence that their position is infallible and with little acceptance of the uncertainties underpinning many of their key assertions. “When confirmation bias becomes endemic, you can be sure that data is no longer being used to reach wise decisions” Syed asserts, “it’s being used to defend prejudged ones.” In the language of Rumsfeld, everyone seems to think that they are the one in possession of the known knowns.

I raised the concept of uncertainty with Wellingtonians in my opening assembly of the year. My exact words were, “As we look ahead to the weeks and months and possibly terms ahead, there is uncertainty: it is uncertain whether a vaccine for COVID will be approved and mass-produced by Christmas, by Easter 2021, or even by this time next year; it is uncertain whether the UK is slipping into a second wave as has been the case in so many countries around the world from New Zealand to Hong Kong to France; it is uncertain whether there will be local lockdowns or outbreaks which might affect the full operation of the College; and for many Wellingtonians in exam year groups, it is still uncertain when GCSE and A-Level exams will be scheduled to take place.”

But, as I said to our pupils in the first week of September, one of the many things that 2020 has taught me is that “it is OK to live with uncertainty, it’s OK to start the year with a plan of what you want to achieve and then for the goal-posts to move; we will adapt successfully, we will find a way through, and it will be OK.” For some this will be easier than others and, as Jelena Kecmanovic, a professor in Georgetown University’s Department of Psychology recently wrote, “Uncertainty is fertile ground for anxiety and fear, because you don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Kecmanovic goes on to say, however, that “Times are hard, but this is also an opportunity for us to learn to deal with uncertainty and become more resilient.” Resilience has been a buzz word in education for decades with many identifying this character trait as the secret to success. Angela Duckworth argues for passion, perseverance and deliberate practice in her 2016 best seller ‘Grit’; Stanford Professor Carol Dweck focuses the characteristic around her theory of the growth mindset.

It would seem to me, however, that the key aspect of resilience which will enable us all, including our young people, to survive and thrive in the months ahead is learning to cope with uncertainty, difficult though that can be. As Syed writes, “We should embrace uncertainty rather than succumbing to the allure of illusory certainty.” From what I have seen over the past three weeks, both Wellingtonians and Wellington staff have shown immense resilience in adapting to our new way of doing things and embracing the uncertainty which lies ahead. One thing is for sure, however: the ability of the Wellington Community to deal with anything which comes our way is a known known.

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