There are two major things with which humans aren’t great. Change and uncertainty. Unfortunately, for those who struggle with both of these things, modern life is becoming increasingly challenging, as they’re now a huge reality of the fast-paced digital world.
I don’t want to delve too much into the impact of change, as it’s a whole thing unto itself. However, what I’ve noticed is that avoidance of uncertainty in teenagers appears to becoming worse and worse and somewhat detrimental to their experience of life. However, I don’t want to blame teens for this. I want to blame their parents as they’re the ones predominantly responsible for bringing them up and providing a world view that either helps or hinders their ability to deal with uncertainty.
I’ve noticed this trend over the past few years on camps and expeditions. The desire for instant answers on everything caused by search engine education and a sense of every moment of the day being carefully scheduled without deviation, presents a massive problem when things don’t go to plan. The problem is that life isn’t always straight forward, nor is it predictable. In fact, quite the opposite is true and life can often be a chaotic mess of which at times, is hard to make sense. Yet, we find ourselves increasingly teaching students who are quite incapable of dealing with uncertainty.
This is a problem on many levels. Gone are the days in which someone could live their life with little to no change or variance in what they did. In times past, people could go to school, leave, get a job and stay in that job until they retired. For many people, leaving their own town or village would have been unheard of and travel wasn’t something that many people did to find work or simply move around. However, this has not only changed, but dramatically shifted to another extreme. Employment is becoming increasingly casualised in many parts of the world, with tech companies saying how wonderful the ‘gig’ economy is, which for the record it’s not! It’s forcing many people into serious underemployment and a constant need to change and re-invent what they’re doing.
Whilst the change of the workforce is a whole massive issue unto itself, it’s just part of the overall continuous change that is happening in our world. Change is constant and change can be taxing on the most dynamic and resilient of us.
What does this mean for students who want to avoid uncertainty? Unfortunately, it means they’re going to seriously struggle in life. Much of the resistance I’m seeing today for students to get involved in something, involves higher-order thinking. Problem solving and adaptability. Whenever they’re forced into taking a longer amount of time to work out an answer, they can’t do it, or more to the point, don’t even try. Instead, they give up because they can’t search for or quickly come to an answer.
It’s therefore important for us to help the avoider face uncertainty. The only way for them to develop the skills needed to cope in the modern world is for them to face uncertainty. In outdoor ed, we can do it by standing back and watching students figure things out for themselves and only step in if there’s a safety issue. This forces action and decision-making processes in students which aren’t being used on a day to day basis. No longer can they have the answer searched for them, nor will every minute of their day be scheduled so they know what’s happening next and at what time.
The spoon-feeding for exams approach that I’ve seen so many schools take, has only reinforced this practice of uncertainty avoidance and for us to adequately prepare students for an ever-changing world, then we need to do more to expose them to uncertainty and give them opportunities to work with that uncertainty, try something new and achieve an outcome that is not scripted in anyway. When we can be doing this for all education, then we might just be able to train the next generation to not only cope with change, but thrive in a very different environment that will continue to change and evolve in 5, 10, 20 and 50 years time. The ability to embrace and deal with uncertainty, is a far greater skill to have than simply knowing the answer to an exam, or where to find it. This is a huge challenge, but one that outdoor and experiential educators are well-equiped to not only meet, but exceed expectations for how well they can do this and ultimately equip students with the right skills for the new digital age.