Risk education should cherish uncertainty

Two weeks ago I attended a 5-day workshop ‘Risk Science and Decision Science for children and teenagers’ at the Lorentz Center in Leiden, the Netherlands. The aim of the workshop was to develop ideas about risk education in the upper primary and secondary years. The event was initiated by a group of international scholars with expertise in risk science and decision making in higher education and was attended by a mixture of participants, some of whom also brought expertise from within the field of primary and secondary education with them. We explored what each of our fields might contribute to a joint conceptualisation of what risk education could look like.

One of the things that struck me was that when participants talked about teaching teenagers sound decision-making, for example, regarding risky behaviour involving sex and drugs, they  seemed to assume that sound decision-making would lead to their own take on the obvious right decision or behaviour. In other words, it would lead to what they considered to be safe behaviour. I see a new risk being created when risk education is predominantly focused on the sort of dilemma’s in regard to which educators want the target group, in this case teenagers, to arrive at a predetermined right decision. Such a strategy could block the development of independent critical, creative and lateral thinking skills that would in addition enable (1) formulation of personally relevant questions; (2) gathering and systematic assessment of information; (3) consideration of personal values and trade-offs. To avoid impeding this development requires of educators the willingness to accept the risk that the right decision as they have conceived it will not be made.

When I consider teaching about how to deal with wicked problems, I would emphasise that wicked problems are typically characterised as messy, uncertain and difficult to define (Rittel & Webber, 1973). They have no single right answer, require creative interdisciplinary problem solving and decision making and bring together multiple stakeholders with diverse points of view and values (Barrett, 2012; Conklin, 2006). My research explores the need to equip learners with uncertainty competences that will enable them to manage these wickedly uncertain and risky problems (Tauritz, 2016). In my opinion, autonomy and independent thought are in themselves risky, but they are also exactly what we need to be able to deal with our rapidly changing and uncertain world. This suggests to me the need for a very different learning environment for risk education that not only teaches students how to reduce and tolerate risk and uncertainty, but also how to cherish uncertainty.

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