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Is it time to teach uncertainty in schools?

Is it time to teach uncertainty in schools?

Is it time to teach uncertainty in schools?

Sometimes there just isn’t a right answer, or at least not without a crystal ball. This simple fact is one many people struggle to grasp. My focus is financial, but this impacts all elements of life including relationships, work and health. The Government is looking to try and boost our happiness, perhaps ensuring the understanding of uncertainty would contribute to that.

It seems to me that society focuses too much on right and wrong, solving problems and definitive’s. Teachers in schools, do you ever teach, ‘there’s no right answer’?

It’s a common problem in my game. I’m often stopped by people asking such questions (as happened yesterday, which prompted this blog).

"Will fixing my mortgage for five years be the cheapest deal?".
"Are house prices in my area going to rise?".
or "Should I sell my shares?" (even though I don’t cover investments).

When I explain that these questions rely on unpredictable factors that no one truly knows and all you can do is examine the risks – I’m often given a shirty look. They seem a little perturbed, as if I’m hiding from them a hidden truth I must know. I sometimes think they’d prefer to think I’m just not telling them, rather than that I just don’t know.

Would you borrow money for a new car if you couldn’t get a job without it?

So, perhaps it’s time we tackled this issue. Regular blog readers will know I’ve been campaigning to get financial education in schools for a long time.

As part of this, we have our free Teen Cash Class guide to help parents and kids get a grasp on financial realities. Within it there is a ‘good debt, bad debt’ test with a series of questions and I often talk about it when making speeches to adults – but there’s one element of the test that always stumps people.

After a few black and white examples of when you should or shouldn’t borrow – leading to a jovial attitude as everyone follows my request to shout out "good debt" or "bad debt" on cue – I throw the following in…

I work in a big city, but lost my job a few months ago. The only job I’ve been able to find is in the countryside – I’ve managed to find somewhere affordable to live – but my kids school is six miles in one direction and my work is seven miles in the other and there’s no public transport.

"I’ve never had a car, but I have checked and the cheapest one I can afford that’ll be reliable is £1,500. Yet I’ve no savings left and after being unemployed my credit score is poor, so I can only get it at 20% APR. That’ll push me right to the brink, but without it I can’t get the job."

At this point I reiterate, "If I get the car and I don’t pass my probation at work, it’s a nightmare. Yet if I don’t get the car, I can’t get the job."

When I ask if it’s good debt or bad debt, I’m usually met with a stony silence – gone are the easy cat calls of the answer. So, I ask everyone to put their hands up for either good debt or bad debt and the room is usually split down the middle.

Occasionally there are a few smart-alecs out there trying to find a way round this deliberately constructed, hypothetical question, leading me to reply, "the kids are too young to cycle and I’ve got a dodgy leg"

My answer is that it’s grey debt – without a crystal ball it’s impossible to answer. In fact, this is less of a question about risk and far more about learning to evaluate a situation. Do a risk-benefit analysis and think about the key decision making criteria.

What’s taught in schools?

For me this is a key lesson we all need to learn in life, so I think it’s important to ensure we’re all prepared to understand that there are circumstances when you can’t always get it right.

My own education was a long time ago, and I’m not sure if Dr. Allday’s class on Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, where using us as guinea pigs to see if quantum mechanics was suitable as an option for A Level students, really counts. But I’d love to know from teachers where this type of grey answer thinking is taught in schools. I hope that with a more progressive curriculum and with PSHE these days there is more of it, but I just don’t know.

It’s important for everyone to understand that sometimes we get a bad outcome having made the right decision, and life can be tough on the back of it, yet we shouldn’t berate ourselves for it afterwards if there was no way of doing better.

I’ve met psychologists who tell me one common reason people are in therapy is because they’re looking for certainty where there can never be any – maybe we all need to learn is that sometimes it’s just not available.

I’d love your thoughts on this, as well as some other examples of similar uncertain financial decisions you’ve needed to make.


5 Responses to “Is it time to teach uncertainty in schools?”

  1. Matt Long says:

      I’ve taught science (particularly physics, now) for some time, and I often find the pressure for ‘right or wrong’ answers comes mainly from the students. My personal experience with science is that things are often much more complex than a straightforward answer, and that anything beyond mathematical proof often requires a long discussion and analysis of what happens. Sadly, there isn’t always time to explain, and students seem to perceive physics as a body of truth, rather than a long process of analysis. I’ve noticed this happening with just about everything though – people would prefer a political party, corporation, or organisation to be evil rather than analyse the situation they’ve been put into.

    I think examinations are somewhat to blame for this, but the truth is more subtle – students ALWAYS struggle on the longer analysis questions on science papers because they require balanced thought (and yes! There are plenty of long questions on exam papers). They consciously avoid them and label them as too difficult. Sadly, real life, as you’ve pointed out in this article, is pretty much always non-straightforward. I think most teachers start out with the perception they can make their children think, but eventually they cave in to the pressure of the system. Children want good grades, not a philosophy lesson.

  2. Anonymous says:

     I read some years ago that if you start a business in the UK you are deemed to have understood some 250,000 pages of legislation that affect you.
    Tax codes, health and safety, employment law etc etc.

    It’s probably more than 250,000 now.

    Whilst I agree that more “practical training” is A Good Thing, it is IMHO the case that there is an implicit lie at the heart of the citizen state contract. 

    My favourite parallel is the one where the maths professor modelled the M25 and worked out that if everyone kept to the recommended safe braking distances in the Highway Code the system would immediately break down into total gridlock.

    We have political masters who like to lie.
    We like to be lied to.
    I think our children know this. 

  3. Barbara Smith says:

    I am a counsellor and would agree that finding ways to live with uncertainty can be a sticking point to peace of mind. I have long felt that children of all ages could also be taught how to ‘listen’ well. I know this looks like another tangent and nothing to do with your point about financial education or uncertainty awareness, but real listening involves flexible thinking and being open to viewpoints other than our own, which links into your ‘grey debt’ idea in that you have to look at alternative ideas, not all of which are neat and tidy. All in all, I am 100% with you for change to the current Schools Curriculum into greyer areas with a greater emphasis on how to survive happily.

  4. Holly Wodge says:

    I think this is an absolutely critical thing to be teaching in schools; I have just finished a degree and am looking to rent my first flat and begin working in my job full time, or start a 3rd job to fund this realistically. 
    However, I am surrounded by students who don’t understand that when you begin working full time and earn over six and a half thousand a year a large portion of this income will go towards tax and NI contributions, that rent does not include bills and that on top of these bills there is Council Tax.I know of graduates who believe that working a 10/15 hour week will pay for their rent, bills and other essentials. Most of these people are moving home soon, due to the uncertainty of jobs, income and an independent roof over their head. This is why we need schools to teach us about more than angles and algebra – I wish I could have had the opportunity to understand tax/rent/mortgages, REAL life situations; we should be wiser to the world, because it is a scary place to be when independence looms and you have to work everything out.Perhaps a class in ‘life’, or an addition to PSE as a module would facilitate pupil’s knowledge, particularly budgeting and costs, VAT, the list is endless, but the information would be extremely useful!

  5. James King says:


    This little read but absolutely fascinating book says it all.  I’d highly recommend it to you, but warn it is not a light read!  It ought to be compulsory for every politician.

    Hammond, Kenneth R.  Human Judgement and Social Policy: Ireducible Uncertainty, Inevitable Error, Unavoidable Injustice

    One of the key understandings you get from this book is about the duality of error, otherwise known as false positive and false negative, which every child should learn about.  A good, non-financial example, is medical screening.  When you get the result it is either positive or negative, but the reality is that there are four results:
    True positive, false positive, true negative and false negative.  No screening test is 100% accurate.  The same principle applies in court cases:  guilty or not guilty? Or true guilty, false guilty, true not guilty; false not guilty.  There is no certainty, only judgement under uncertainty.  You can often reduce uncertainty, but rarely eliminate it. 

    Stewart Brock

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