Skip to content

Blog post

A hidden curriculum of certainty: Inadequate education in an uncertain world

Helen Young, Associate Professor at London South Bank University Lee Jerome, Professor of Education at Middlesex University

As educators in university education departments, we want to teach about the complex and contested nature of education and society. Furthermore, we are very conscious that our planetary predicament calls for different ways of thinking. Despite all this, we often find that students just want ‘the right answer’. They have been through test-based schooling (Ball, 2017) and are trying to find the rules of the game where they sense that their degree certificate will be based on them giving ‘the right answer’. It seems there is a hidden curriculum of certainty throughout our education system. This blog post focuses on how a hidden curriculum of certainty ill-prepares students for the uncertain world in which we live. Uncertainty permeates all aspects of life although it is particularly and increasingly pertinent in relation to our planetary predicament of climate breakdown, mass extinction and global injustice.

‘It seems there is a hidden curriculum of certainty throughout our education system … that ill-prepares students for the uncertain world in which we live.’

‘Historically, the central role of education has been to socialize the young and to ensure continuity in society … In stable conditions, this reproduction function is sufficient. But not in volatile and uncertain times, when the future will not be a linear extension of the past and when social innovation, creativity, and experimentation is critically important. The contradiction now is that the more we try to ensure continuity by doing more of the same, the greater the prospects for a discontinuous and chaotic future become.’ (Sterling, 2021, p. 7)

While Sterling suggests that we need ‘social innovation, creativity, and experimentation’, in our ‘Deliberative Classroom’ research with secondary school students we observed students were overly focused on eliminating uncertainty and closing down difference (Jerome et al., 2021). We gave them controversial issues to discuss in groups – for example, on the use of animal products in manufacturing bank notes, and on cases of political action where campaigners have broken the law. In some ways, they demonstrated a thoughtful approach to deliberation. However, we were struck, first, by how the assumption of group discussions was that they should come to a consensus to report to the teacher rather than providing a reflection of the complexity of the discussion; and second, that there was a focus on task completion rather than on expanding discussions. These ways of deliberating follow common patterns in classroom deliberation where premature consensus and task completion are valued. However, they are inadequate approaches to deliberation and knowledge in our uncertain world.

Living with uncertainty is hard. Singer-Brodowski and colleagues (2022, p. 1) have identified how ‘the multiple crises of unsustainability are provoking increasing stress and unpleasant emotions among students’. Covid-19 has been tough. Climate breakdown is much tougher. Furthermore, many students experience greater precarity in their personal lives than their teachers do, and teachers can feel that providing the security of ‘right answers’ helps. To add to the challenge, not only are these crises of unsustainability – such as Covid-19 and climate breakdown – inherently complex and uncertain, but they are often associated with conspiracy theories, which provide the illusion of certainty. The prevalence of conspiracy theories can lead educators and public information campaigns to an even greater focus on the certainty of facts and sometimes this can be an appropriate response. However, in battles for facts, other sources (from well-funded lobby groups and/or charismatic figures) can win out over institutionally provided facts. Responses, therefore need to include a meta-understanding of different forms of knowledge (de Oliveira, 2021) and how conspiracy theories are structured. Part of our educational purpose should be helping young people live with uncertainty and avoid the lure of certainty.

‘Part of our educational purpose should be helping young people live with uncertainty and avoid the lure of certainty.’

A hidden curriculum of certainty cannot help us understand or address our planetary predicament. Uncertainty needs to be brought into the open and examined in collaborations between learners and educators in all aspects of school and university curriculum and pedagogy.


Ball, S. J. (2017). The education debate (3rd ed.). Policy Press.

de Oliveira, V. M. (2021). Hospicing modernity: Facing humanity’s wrongs and the implications for social activism. North Atlantic Books.

Jerome, L., Liddle, A., & Young, H. (2021). Talking about rights without talking about rights: On the absence of knowledge in classroom discussions. Human Rights Education Review, 4(1), 8–26.

Singer-Brodowski, M., Förster, R., Eschenbacher, S., Biberhofer, P., & Getzin, S. (2022). Facing crises of unsustainability: Creating and holding safe enough spaces for transformative learning in higher education for sustainable development. Frontiers in Education, 7.

Sterling, S. (2021). Educating for the future we want. Opening essay for the GTI Discussion Forum, ‘The Pedagogy of Transition’. Great Transition Initiative (GTI).