Confronting uncertainty with Truth OR Why use metaphors?

In honour of the release of Martin Weller’s book Metaphors of Edtech, I thought I’d address one of the issues that keeps coming up in my classes that I’m teaching this term. The difference between an educational concept being ‘true’ and something that has explanatory power.

In the introduction to the book Martin suggests that the research provides two key insights about metaphors…

  1. They are fundamental in shaping our interactions with the world
  2. They can be used to understand a new domain

His book is a super interesting journey through the various ways we have used things in our world to try and shed light on the complex uncertain world of learning and its accompanying systems.

I had his book in mind when I came across this tweet circulating in my feed this morning.

I started responding to the question on Twitter (potentially rhetorical, but I’m going to take it as if it wasn’t) “why in the heck does this still happen?” and decided that it was more of a blogpost.


I understand the word Myth to have originally meant something like ‘the way we explain things’. The word descends to us from the word Greek word Mythos, with a meaning that, originally, doesn’t have the sense of ‘not true’ in it. Rather, as Brzeziński suggests, “Myths have been created to give answer to the most basic questions concerning human existence.” We have our rationalist friends from the late middle ages to thank for the bait and switch in the meaning. Now myth means something like ‘things that aren’t true.’

I think of myth as a way we confront uncertainty.

Learning styles as myth

This is a hot topic in my classroom. I’m not a huge Learning Styles guy because I find that once people find a box to jump in, they don’t like to explore other boxes. I’ve heard too many students/faculty say “i’m an auditory learner” and refuse to watch the video. I know the concept of learning styles is being taught on my campus. The education students that I teach are VERY familiar with the concept and most of them have a clear idea of what their own learning style is supposed to be, regardless of whether they believe in it or not.

In their oft cited 2010 article Reiner and Willingham suggest that learning styles do not ‘lead to better learning’. As is so often the case in this kind of argument, the idea of what ‘better learning’ might be is taken for granted. They did their research in ‘controlled conditions’ and discovered that ‘learning is not improved’. There is a hint, though, where they say “These preferences are not “better” or “faster”, according to learning-styles proponents, but merely “styles.” In other words, just as our social selves have personalities, so do our memories.” (2010) Willingham, certainly, is a big memory guy. (Willingham, 2019).

So. If I’m to read between the lines here, Science has proved that using ‘learning styles’ doesn’t improve memory retention in students. This has very little impact on my teaching. I don’t test my students memory in my classes.

The authors do agree that learning styles advocates are right that all our students are different. That’s good. But what could it do? What if we don’t ‘believe’ in learning styles but are conscious of approaches that different students hate?

Let’s talk about math

Every time I talk about uncertainty in education someone brings up doctors or math. “I wouldn’t want my doctor to learn that way (sorry. they do)” or they say “2+2 is 4, you just need to shut up and learn the math”.

Two weeks ago I was ‘helping’ my 14 year old with her grade 9 math. By ‘helping’ I mean she was explaining it to me. I relearned grade 9 math two years ago to help my other child who had fallen behind at the start of the pandemic, and promptly forgot it all again. What I noticed this time was that the math she was learning was the same math no one in my PhD program last summer could remember how to do. I mean. There might have been one person, but that person was not putting their hand up.

The topic of ‘how we felt about math’ became a conversation in several of the groups that we were in. Those who felt they ‘weren’t good at math’ were struck by a huge sense of anxiety trying to relearn the math. They had ‘learned’ that math, maybe in grade 9. They passed it. They proved at one point in time that they had it in their memory. But they didn’t consider themselves someone who ‘liked math’ or were ‘good at math’.

If a ‘learning style’ helped a student feel better about math, would that make it worthwhile? Let’s say that it had no impact on their ‘memory’ of math concepts, but they remembered math class with a sense of fondness… would that make learning styles an approach we should consider?

Does it even need to be ‘an approach’? Can we posit the idea that working with student preference leads them to be less frustrated about the work they are being forced to do? Maybe. But you’re never going to be able to ‘science’ that one in the same way. (don’t say we could do a survey)

Confronting uncertainty

Testing memory, as it can be done in ‘controlled conditions’, is one way we can ‘shape the interactions in our world’ and ‘understand a new domain’. It is a way to affix a number to the learning process. It allows us to clamp down on the uncertainty of this crazy learning thing we do and give it some clarity. It’s ‘evidence-based’. When we believe that memory is what we’re trying to do in our schools, we interact with our students differently and we understand success as a high grade on a test.

Same with learning-styles. It’s a way of trying to talk about something that we see in our classrooms. All our kids are different. They seem to learn things in different ways. Different approaches seem to be preferable to different kids. Let’s put a name on it and build some categories so we can teach people to teach to specific learning styles.

People remembering things is helpful. Paying attention to how people prefer to learn is probably a good idea. They are different ways of talking about what we call ‘learning’.

The other myths in the tweet above ‘people remember 10% of what they read’ and ‘the factory model of education’ are similar. They have explanatory power. They allow us to talk about how reading something is not ‘remembering’ something. They allow us to talk about how our schools are shaped to train people in certain ways eerily similar to factories. Are they ‘true’?


I think our desire to move passed simply explaining something ‘reading isn’t perfect’ to giving it a ‘model’ or a ‘truth’ is the original sin. We are trying to ‘truthify’ something that often doesn’t respond to true and false statements (though, obviously, some do). And then we follow along behind it and ‘research it’ and discover that it isn’t ‘true’.

Not everything has to be true. If learning styles are a myth, then they do explain something to me. They remind me that my student are different and that I need to pay attention to their preferences.

Even if those preferences aren’t about the math they end up remembering.

The value of metaphor

The nice thing about metaphor, is that it allows us to talk about something without troubling ourselves about the metaphor perfectly describes the world. It’s a way of making meaning by sharing how we feel about something else. It’s a different way of confronting that uncertainty. You don’t need to go find a lab and prove it isn’t true.

If I said that learning is a weed because you can’t really control what someone learns, you could nod, and think about a weed in your garden. It might connect with something else you’ve been thinking and it might not. But if by some strange happenstance you’ve made it this far down in the post, you might now have some image of a weed… and be thinking about learning.

Martin’s book

Martin’s book is a super-cool journey through the metaphors that people have used in edtech. It’s really interesting to see the different ways people have tried to tell stories about the uncertainty they’ve been confronted with.

His writing style is as good as ever. It’s a book I’m going to continue to go and drop into.

  • Paper book is on sale, September 30th for $24.99.
  • Available now to read online


Brzeziński, D. (2015). The Notion of Myth in History, Ethnology and Phenomenology of Religion. Teologia i Człowiek, 32(4), 13–26.

RIENER, C., & WILLINGHAM, D. (2010). THE MYTH OF LEARNING STYLES. Change, 42(5), 32–35.

Weller, M. (2022). Metaphors of Ed Tech. Athabasca University Press.

Willingham, D. T. (2019). The Digital Expansion of the Mind Gone Wrong in Education. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 8(1), 20–24.

Future of Education Speaker Series Episode 1 – Students thinking about future skills

As I’ve mentioned various times on this blog, I have had the good fortune of working with about 70 Co-op students throughout the pandemic. They were students who would mostly have gone out to their engineering or kinesiology placements, but could not due to the pandemic. They’ve been wonderful to work with. The students I’ve worked with in the past had mostly self-selected into the work that we were doing. These students had not. They were doing their best (like so many of us) to make the best of a Covid situation. I learned a lot from them…

One of the things we’ve worked on extensively… is about what it means to be ‘prepared’ for the world that we have in front of us.

This Friday at noon EST (April 29th, 2022) my students will be presenting the results of their Futures thinking activity. They have been tasked to consider what skills they might need to succeed in the future. They started with the trends that are part of the SSHRC future challenges and built from there. It is capstone presentation at the end of their four month work term in the Office of Open Learning at UWindsor. Join us. We’d love to hear from you.

Why are we doing this?

I do my best to have my student employees do meaningful work. I also try and do the kind of training that might make the experience worthwhile to them. One of the key focuses of that training in the last two years has been the gap between their expectations of what it means to work and what I am actually asking them to do. I have found that I need to spend significant time making students believe that I am actually looking for their ‘opinion’ and not ‘the right answer’. They struggle (at first) confronting things that are uncertain. They want a clear question with a clear answer.

This experience led me to take a closer look at the ‘future preparation of students’ conversation. Whether we are talking about 21st century skills, or preparing people for future jobs or whatever… what are we preparing them for? Is confronting uncertainty a 21st century skill? Are other people in my field seeing the same things from students? What other things should I be trying to prepare them for that haven’t occurred to me that I’ve overlooked? How many of those are the results of my own embodiment and privilege? What, eventually, does this mean we should be doing to change what and how we teach?

I don’t know. I know that I care about the work I’ve done with my students and I believe that there is some kind of disconnect. Over the next ten months I’m going to be hosting a series of conversation to talk about it. I’m planning an open course for the fall. I’m also currently applying for funding for a conference in February of 2023. Stay tuned.

A few thoughts going forward.


You might believe that uncertainty is the product of our current times (pandemic, war in Europe, housing and oil prices, climate change etc…). You could see the next 20 years as a time of potentially unprecedented uncertainty. You might also believe that the abundance of access to voices and information have unveiled the uncertainty that has always lain underneath the veneer of the post WWII ‘clear objectives’ global north west. Either way. I feel pretty comfortable suggesting that many of the new challenges our OOL students will be facing in the next 20 years don’t have ‘answers’ and, frankly, the ones we’re handing on (eg. poverty) don’t have ‘answers’ either.

I think that preparing people for uncertainty is different than preparing them for certainty. I was talking about uncertainty a few weeks ago and was told that we need to ‘teach the basics‘ so that people can even enter the conversation. We need to teach the certainties before we teach the uncertainties. I hear it. We were making the same criticisms of whole language learning in the 80s. I just have this feeling that this conversation about uncertainty and what we can do for it is important.

Futures thinking

Futures thinking is a method of examining current trends through the lens of the future. It is NOT prediction. Take your time machine back 5 years and make some guesses… your predictions were probably wrong. If they were right… no one listened to you.

Futures thinking is about creating ‘possible futures’ that give us a chance to discuss our current trends outside of the current disagreements we may have about them. We combine trends and think about what would happen if they became a dominant trend in our culture. What if, 20 years from now, housing prices went up by 500%? What if advances in cyborginess gave us all unlimited mental storage?

The possibilities are endless, but the future is not the thing. The real advantage of taking a futures approach is the chance to think about the trend. The outcome is a better understanding of what we should be doing in our world right now.

What do I hope to get from this?

Well. I have this conversation that I want to be in. I can’t find it… so I’m hoping to start one version of it and find the others that are already ongoing.

I’m also hoping to pull together the wisdom we come across. We’ll see how things develop, how many voices decide to join. It’d be great if that October open course actually became a MOOC. I’d like that. We’ll see.


For sure come to the presentation on Friday. For now drop a comment on this post if you’re interested. I haven’t quite settled on the platform for communications (what with the recent unpleasantness in the social mediasphere).

Teaching for uncertainty vs. teaching the basics

I had a really great time at the #DLsymp22 conference this week. It was my first time back face 2 face, and while i had a few butterflies before I walked up on stage, it all felt pretty natural. I had forgotten how much fun it was to be with a few hundred passionate educators where the things that I care about are the things that they care about. Good times.


The talk I gave was the first run of the stuff I’ve been working on for the last two years. I started writing a book in the summer of 2019 that became, eventually, about uncertainty and its relationship to learning. A book, that, frankly, needed to get rewritten a few times considering how the people’s sense of ‘uncertainty’ was impacted by the last few years.

I framed the talk around the needs of the young people coming out of our education system. What do they need to learn ‘for’. I’ve had the opportunity to spend a lot of time around 20ish year olds the past couple of years (I’ve had 70 Co-op students work with me) And their plight, and the way I believe they’ve been misunderstood has become a real focus of my time. What are they facing and what do we need to do to help them face it? What does our education system need to ‘be’ to get them there?

The first question I asked the crowd was what they thought students were learning for…

Q1. What do you think our students are learning for? What should they be good at when they’re done school?

It’s a great chart, with lots of words that I think are super-important in the process of helping students get ready for what they are going to be facing going forward.

The middle part of the talk was about how I have this suspicion that our education system contributes to a particular ‘syndrome’ that is quite the opposite of what you see in that wonderful list of things to learn. Quaintly named, I’ll admit. But I’m calling a hat a hat on this one… to avoid confusion.

I have consistently struggled with student employees, early on in their work term, with assuming that any problem I give them – or questions I ask them -has a clear answer. That they can get their job ‘right’. Maybe more importantly, many (most?) seem to believe that I actually already know the answer to any question I ask them… like I’m playing some kind of game by not telling them the answer.

Like they are still playing the game of school. The game where a teacher has something they want you to do, they know what the ‘answer’ is, but they just won’t tell you. Good, compliant, high achieving students, are the ones who figure out what the teacher wants and gives it to them. They are rewarded for learning compliance. (note: compliance is not on the list of things we say we want them to learn, and yet it is often what we reward most.)

The next question (further into the talk) that I asked was about what they thought students would be facing. This was not the cheeriest part of the talk. We are living through a time right now where at least 4 things I would have considered black swans (war in Europe, oil prices, climate change, pandemic) in 2010 are happening at the same time. If you include things like housing prices, that number goes up.

I asked the ‘future of our learners’ question through the lens of uncertainty. I defined uncertainty through the lens of the ‘ill-structured problems’ or, kind of, the lens of wicked problems. A problem where one some or all of the question, the process for addressing the question or the solution are unknown or unknowable. The list is pretty scary.

What are some real world problems without clear answers?

So many of these real world issues are and will remain uncertain. There’s no ‘solution’ to poverty. There’s only hard work on pieces of the problem, a problem that gets super messy to define if you start to think about it.

The disconnect

If the world our students are facing is full of uncertain problems, can we prepare them for that with right answers? Obviously I don’t think so. And it’s not even about leaving room for ‘failure’. In order to fail at something, someone else has to know what success is… and sure, I can’t fail to fix my water tap, because it’s still leaking when I’m done. Sure. There are definitely problems we can fix. A lot of the big ones, though, are not things that ‘fix’.

But we need to teach them the basics

People were really nice to me about the presentation. Many, clearly, were just happy to be together in a big group again. Some people pointed out some very important equity issues with including more ‘uncertainty’ in our teaching. One teacher asked if adding more uncertainty would lead to more anxiety in students or less, because they’d have more practice with uncertainty. Awesome question.

One gentlemen (quite jovially) accosted me later that day and said “but, obviously, we have to teach the basics! They can’t be involved in this if we don’t teach the basics first!”

I should be better prepared for this objection… I’ve been hearing it for 15 years. At least. But it always sets me back a bit. I’m not suggesting that students should have to learn to identify letters or colours. But i don’t really think the ‘basics’ should be the ‘point’ of learning in most cases.

I think of my journey through carpentry… is hammering a basic? Is it drilling? What about joinery?

I’m not saying any of those things aren’t important, but I’ve learned them in the context of building things, of understanding what they’re useful for, not by hammering 1000 nails into a board so the nail head was perfectly flat.

I’m sure my hammering would be BETTER if i did the 1000 nails thing. But there’s more to hammering a nail than getting the nail flat. Safety. wood grain. wood type. time. So many things that bring context to it. Most importantly I’M NOT A CARPENTER. Most of our students will never need to be ‘amazing’ at anything we’re teaching them.

I don’t wish for a world full of super-scientists, I wish for citizens who understand enough about science and statistics to respond ethically to a pandemic. I wish for citizens who can handle uncertainty and still make good decisions.

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