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.


Student Q/A About Online Learning


Do you feel it is possible for those of us taking our courses online to receive the same benefits from this class as those in a traditional setting? Do you have any specific suggestions for those of us who are taking the classes online to optimize our learning experience?

Those are two really great questions.  I struggle all of the time with how I make the online experience as rich as I feel the face-to-face classes are.  That is one of the reasons I have more longish assignment, but those take longer to grade.  It’s easier for and instructor to do low- value, low-quality assignments (like multiple choice stuff) because it is easier to do.

In terms of suggestions, I would take every opportunity to interact with others.  Talk with the professors. You can join me during online office hours. Those types of things will make the course feel less impersonal or mechanized.

– On the PowerPoint presentation, it shows attendance/daily quizzes/assignments as accounting for 40% of our grade. Can you advise how this works for those of us taking our classes online.

These are the smaller, shorter assignments. Attendance is how I can see if you have logged in and really if you are working on pace.  Many students think they can blow all of this off until the last minute.

– (Another online specific question; sorry) It’s ok Will we have the opportunity to work with partners or smaller groups in this class (communicating via email, etc.) or will this class all be individually based?

I am working to put together activities which will have you working with each other in meaningful ways.  You will have to let me know if you thought they were effective after.

– In the video you stated that we would need to develop a career plan. For those of us that have already chosen their career field and are returning to school, how will this work.

This will help you do research, specifically career research if you find yourself looking for a new job within a career or you are looking to change careers. There are lots of things packed into the project that even some of my more seasoned students have found valuable.

Why are we taught the way we are in high school if it is not the best way to teach us?

Why do you think that high school doesn’t do the best job? What is the purpose of high school? People lived on this planet for thousands of years and have rich and fulfilling lives and never went to high school. Somebody thought up the idea of high school. Who do you think that was and what was it’s purpose? Is it possible that the real goal is different than the stated goal?

When my son was about 3, he ran around all the time, especially right before bed. He would run and run so that he wouldn’t fall asleep. I would tell him, “Come her and sit next to me.”

“No,” he would protest. “I don’t want to go to sleep.”

“You don’t have to, just lay here for five minutes. Then you can keep running around.”

He would stop and lay next to me on the couch because I wasn’t telling him to go to sleep. Once he stopped moving, I knew that sleep would catch him and I could carry him off to bed.  Is it possible that high school is doing something similar to that?

My only question for the introduction video is why I have to even take this class in the first place. I really don’t have any questions about the syllabus. I don’t know how you can even form any about it.

I am sorry that you feel that you are forced to take this class.  I am trying to get you to harness the power your brain has by switching it on. Questions do that.

You seem to be saying that you simply are not curious about anything in this class. If you have no questions as you pass through this or any other class, you will see earning your degree as a series of obstacles to be avoided, not opportunities to grow and learn.

The short answer, frankly, is that you don’t need to take this class. You don’t need to be in college. You signed yourself up for this course and you are the one that can sign yourself out if that is what you think needs to happen. YOU ARE GROWN. No one in “making you” live your life. Decide what you want to do.

On a final note, I feel bad that that wonderful and creative person you are and the passion with which I am sure you entered this world with got kicked out of you during an educational process that turns learning to a chore.  Let me know what I can do to assist you

Great questions, thanks!

Mentor Interview: Regional Biologist

My name is Santiago Z, I am an Environmental Science technology student, and far more than being an environment student I consider myself an environmental activist because of the help I put into my everyday habits of life, so that my footprint isn’t so much that effective to harm our world’s environment.

My mentor is Mr. Ricardo Zambrano, he is a Regional Biologist for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, he is a wonderful professional who is
perfect for being my mentor because of his experience in the field of the environment and specifically his work with endangered species. Some of Ricardo’s experience is to have worked at the Yellowstone National Park from 1990-1991which I find outstanding, he radio-tracked coyotes and studied their behavior. He also worked as a sea turtle biologist in Mexico’s Yucatan
Peninsula from 1991 to 1994, there he researched and conserved endangered sea turtles.
Currently working with non hunted endangered species he focuses primarily on wildlife ranging from butterflies, birds, mammals, and herpetofauna, he researches, monitors and conserves wildlife. He has Bachelors in biology education from the University of California and a Masters degree in Ecology, Behavior and Evolution from Florida Atlantic University. His internship was studying the behavior of California Sea Lions and as a County Park Ranger. He did many volunteering jobs before he started to earn money in the field, one was as a wildlife rehabilitator in Sea World in Orlando, Florida. Another volunteer job was researching chimpanzees in Africa also using the GIS (Geographic Information System) tool. Below is our conversation about this exciting profession:
What are the biggest challenges that you overcame in this position?
Some of the biggest challenges are definitely first of all the pay range in this field, its not easy to start in this field, and of course having to deal with people that don’t care at all about the environment and its wildlife some of them include politicians and owners of huge companies.Another challenge is trying to convince people of what is right to save wildlife.

What skills do you use every day and how did you acquire them?
Some of the skills that you need for this career is to have good writing skills, good
communication skills, public speaking, knowledge of the habitats and the wildlife species, knowledge of the GIS tool, statistic software, genetics, botany and also recommended to know how to drive 4 wheelers, 4×4 trucks and boats.
What makes for a perfect day in your field/job/profession?
A perfect day in my profession is a day out doing field work, going out to different reserves to research, collect data and help species survive in their habitats.
What keeps you doing this job every day?
Definitely my awareness for the environment and my fight to keep helping to save the endangered species in Florida.
How do you maintain your professional skills or certifications? What professional association do you belong to and how do you interact with them?
This profession, for the most part, does not require certification although the Wildlife Society does have a Certified Biologist program. However, few institutions or employers require that. But in this career it is important to maintain your professional skills by keeping up with current research, techniques, software and hardware. Subscribing to scientific journals or reading the latest scientific literature on the subjects relevant to my work is one way. I will go through some
of the articles to see if there are any new research methods or techniques or equipment useful for that work.

For example, radio-tracking animals has changed quite a bit over the years. It used to be that all radio-tracking was done with VHF transmitter signals (similar to walkie-talkies). Now transmitters use satellite receivers or GPS receivers or even cell phone towers to track wildlife.

I belong to the Waterbird Society, The Wildlife Society, Audubon, and the Sierra Club but there are many more. I attend their conferences or meetings regularly and I am on the Board of Directors for a couple.
How has your opinion of this field changes since you started or since you were a student?
My opinion has not really changed. It is still an exciting field but as I mentioned quite challenging. It has gotten more difficult in one sense since there is always more development/construction but it has also gotten better since more and more people are becoming concerned with the environment.
What led you to pick this field?
I liked working outdoors and working with animals. As a kid my family took us camping a lot and that helped me appreciate nature and wildlife. Growing up in southern California I was able to regularly go to the mountains, beaches, deserts, and forests.

Mentor Interview: Computer Programmer and Photographer

Hello, my name is Jacob F.. I am currently enrolled at Palm Beach State tending to my Associate in Arts degree and continuing from here to a university for completing a Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science with a minor in Photography.

My mentor’s name is Travis and he went to Palm Beach Atlantic College for his Computer Information Systems degree in 1997, and then earned a masters in Computer Systems from the University of Phoenix in 2003. He began his professional career as a Perl programmer and I have since been doing software development as well as fulfilling the role of Production Support Manager for the past fifteen years. I am currently employed by Revelex.

I believe that Travis F. will be a very good source of information for the field of computer programming, as well as the areas surrounding that career choice, and this is why I chose him as my mentor.

What made you realize you wanted to get into this career?

I took a BASIC programming course during my high school education, did extremely well during that course, and then I decided to pursue a degree in the field, and as a professional career.

If you had to do it again, would you enter this field? Why or why not?

Yes, I would continue a very similar course to what I did. The reason why I would is that the software development field is in very high demand, offers many challenges and is to me a very satisfying experience over all.

How do you see this profession changing or developing over time?

The software field is a very diverse career path and it offers many opportunities and challenges in a wide range of fields, from graphical interfaces to web programming and embedded development, and many other career choices.

Each one of these areas is constantly changing and improving on itself. As long as there is a demand for computer / internet applications, there will be a demand for software developers.

How do you stay current in the field and develop yourself professionally?

I stay current by attending PHP conferences, and following well-known developers in the PHP community on both Twitter as well as their personal blogs. I also stay current with the advances in my chosen language on their Wiki and their official websites.

What advice about the benefits or cautions about the difficulties

/ Hazards would you give to someone who is considering entering this field?

Software development is a very broad field and its easy to try to do everything. That is a trap. Find the niche that you like and that you’re good in and pursue it.

Every career has its aggravating moments, what are the main frustrations you encounter, and how do you deal with them?

The main challenge in developing software is working with people. That can range from other developers, project managers, customers and everyone in between. In order to succeed in software development you need to be as skilled in working with others as well as knowing how to program.

What’s a Class Called “Introduction to the College Experience” About?


At the beginning of the semester I have lots of students wander in to my classes because they were told that the had to take Introduction to the College Experience. Many of them are recently graduated high school students and some of them are returning after working, raising kids or a stint in the military. On the first day of the semester I like to ask them why they signed up for this class.

At my college, Palm Beach State College, (www.palmbeachstate.edu), the course is required and that is the main reason why students wind up there, but there are lots of reasons why a course like this would help many students and a good reason why so many colleges require it for incoming students.


Students need to know how to interact with the college system. Colleges and universities have their own vocabularies and ways of approaching credits and grades and degrees and certifications.  Students who have a chance to understand what those things are and how to use them will likely make better use of the college or university than those who have to find things out by wandering campus and figuring it out.


Many colleges and universities have greatly increased their support systems to ensure greater student success. Most colleges have student learning centers, career offices, disability support services, writing centers, testing centers and expanded library services. Learning about these supports and practice using them can mean the difference between staying in school or dropping out.  These supports help students find jobs while attending school, provide tutoring services or accommodate learning needs that students have.


Good Intro courses help students plan.  They help students select a career and/or major. This is increasingly important as states tighten funding for classes and programs that they consider essential and non-essential.  Frankly, states don’t want to fund courses that don’t lead to a degree or specific certification. Under these circumstances, college students are not encouraged to explore their interests in the courses they take, but rather earn a degree as quickly as possible.

They also help them with an educational plan so they find and schedule the courses they need.  This helps them look at program requirements and prerequisites needed to complete or transfer or prepare them in some other way.

Learning About Learning:

Good Intro or First Year Experience courses help student learn about learning. We stop teaching kids how to read in about 3rd grade and after that we expect them to learn by reading. The methods teachers and professors us go largely examined by students.  Most of my students have never been challenged to think about their thinking (known as “metacognition“). In a good Intro course, students learn about how to process information and which modes of learning are more effective for them to gain knowledge and skills.