Learning from Ambiguity

There is an unfortunate reality for most students that I see in a college class; they have been taught to avoid failure and ambiguity. Since they were little, whether they wanted to or not, they have been told that the goal of being a student is to make As. Even though many of them don’t they still feel guilty about not making As. It is as if every activity they have ever undertaken has been designed for them to succeed. The trouble is that no one designed the rest of their lives that way.

I had an administrator laugh at me one time when I said, aloud in front of a group of fellow teachers, that I design activities where I know students will fail, at least at first. I want them to regain the ability to struggle to achieve something, to not find the correct answer easily. It has been my experience that struggle in most of our lives is one of the things that causes us to grow and mature into full-fledged adults. But our K12 system wants students to be perfect in a narrow band of academic knowledge that can be recalled for standardized tests so they learn to avoid failure. They learn to avoid struggle and ambiguity.

Adam Smith, the man who is credited with describing the foundations modern capitalism viewed human beings as inherently lazy and needed incentives to labor. A few hundred years later, B.F. Skinner postulated that human behavior could be conditioned through a series of rewards and punishments. These two streams of thought run like a gutter in the ghetto of public education. It really doesn’t matter what students learn if our view of them is that they are lazy and need to be controlled to do anything of consequence.

My experience with students, when they enter my class, is that they are beleaguered by these views. They understand it for the crap that it is at a level almost instinctual. They expect every instructor to take part in this game with a system of tricks and points to coerce them into doing and thinking the right things even though they know they aren’t learning things of real importance. But they know that they will need to get the “right answer” because that has always been the goal. When I don’t play this way, they often get mad at me, at least at first.

They aren’t used to failure. They aren’t used to anyone talking about it with them honestly. It is disorienting. They don’t know what to do when the “right answer” does not spring forth from the back of the book or from their instructors’ lips the moment they don’t understand something. I help them exist in that space, to navigate it with inquiry and patience.  In short, I create a place to struggle and fail and then struggle some more. But in the end, they begin to realize that they aren’t lazy and they don’t need to be controlled. They need to have a process to deal with questions with no apparent “right answer” or several answers all of which could be the right answer. They learn to deal with that failure. They make friends with that ambiguity that is a hallmark of adult life. In a small way, they grow up just a little in my class.

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