Positioning as not-understanding: The value of showing uncertainty for engaging in science

Jessica Watkins, David Hammer, Jennifer Radoff, Lama Z. Jaber, Anna M. Phillips

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

47 Citations (Scopus)


Not understanding is central to scientific work: what scientists do is learn about the natural world, which involves seeking out what they do not know. In classrooms, however, the position of not-understanding is generally a liability; confusion is an unfortunate condition to resolve as quickly as possible, or to conceal. In this article, we argue that students' public displays of uncertainty or confusion can be pivotal contributions to the classroom dynamics in initiating and sustaining a class's science inquiry. We present this as a central finding from a cross-case analysis of eight episodes of students' scientific engagement, drawing on literature on framing to show how participants positioned themselves as not-understanding and how that was consequential for the class's scientific engagement. We show how participants enacted this positioning by asking questions or expressing uncertainty around a phenomenon or model. We then analyze how participants' displays of not-understanding shaped the conceptual, epistemic, and social aspects of classroom activity. We present two cases in detail: one in which a student's positioning helped initiate the class's scientific engagement and another in which it helped sustain it. We argue that this work motivates considering how to help students learn to embrace and value the role of expressing one's confusion in science.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)573-599
Number of pages27
JournalJournal of Research in Science Teaching
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2018
Externally publishedYes


  • discourse analysis
  • framing
  • inquiry

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