What do you do when you don’t know what to do?

This is a simple question that can feel, at times of crisis, overwhelming. Much study is devoted to answering it, especially in critical fields such as medicine and aviation. When everything is going wrong and all the training seems to be silent on how best to resolve the situation, how do doctors and pilots make the best choices?

One of the most influential educational events I have ever attended focused on medical uncertainty. A doctor spoke of her first night responsible for the Emergency Room at her first hospital placement. She had excelled all through school, attended the most competitive medical school, and excelled again; and yet the first patient she was called to attend she did not know how to treat.

What was so harrowing for her was not the missing medical knowledge: it was the much larger missing piece – not knowing what to do about her uncertainty – not having a path to help her resolve the situation. All her life she had been set a task, had prepared for it, had succeeded at it. Now the task was nebulous and the criteria for success uncertain, and she realised that nothing in her education had prepared her for that moment.

There is no easy or simple way to equip anyone for such horrible moments of uncertainty and doubt. In the end it comes down to that elusive perfect form of confidence: assurance in oneself and one’s ability without any hint of arrogance or complacency – knowing that the only options are calm; candour; working how out much time is available before the moment of crisis arrives; and using that time to make the best possible decision when it does.

In schools, helping to develop this confidence in students means blending the fixed preparation required for assessment to set criteria – ie exams – with open questions, undefined tasks, learning that has nothing to do with jumping hoops. And it means providing enough opportunity to confront challenge; sometimes – maybe even often – to fail; and to understand, as the saying goes, how to fail again and fail better.

Right now all students are facing a horrible crash course in uncertainty management, and none more so than examination cohorts. They are being asked to prepare for assessments without knowing the form they will take; the content they will include; how they will be marked; and how exactly they will relate to an awarded grade. And schools, too, are being forced to invent the best possible solutions in a constantly changing environment where the goalposts don’t so much shift as blink continually in and out of existence.

In the end, in such circumstances, we can only fall back on the fundamentals. Looking after ourselves and each other; taking time out and away from study; getting out into open space as often as possible; and being assured that if we approach this challenge with as much calm as we can hold together, and knowing we are doing our best, then whatever the outcome, we can have no regrets. By doing that and getting through, all students should know they will be learning such an important lesson to help address a question with which we all grapple throughout our lives – when there is no simple answer and no clear path, how to live as wisely and as joyously and as fully as we can.

Will le Fleming