Thursday, July 09, 2015


(Situational) Tolerance for Ambiguity

Jeff Selingo has a good piece about the importance of “tolerance for ambiguity” as an employment skill.  He situates it in the context of his early days in journalism, when an editor basically dropped him off in a small town and told him to find, and write, a story by five o’clock.  Selingo notes that much of the work world involves the ability to figure out what needs to be done before anyone tells you, and that instilling that skill is part of the task of higher education.

I like the piece, and there’s a lot to it.  But in thinking about my own tolerance for ambiguity, I wouldn’t call it high or low.  It varies, and I think the major independent variable is my own feeling of competence in the situation.  When I feel like I can handle whatever the situation is likely to throw at me, ambiguity isn’t a problem.  When I’m utterly lost, ambiguity can feel threatening.  The key issue isn’t so much ambiguity or the lack thereof, but its possible outcome and my own sense of vulnerability.

If that’s broadly correct, then part of what we need to do for students is to instill some confidence that they can find solutions.

When I move to a new place -- something very much on my mind of late -- I make a point of getting lost several times.  I’ll drive around without a clear mission, or sometimes just take roads to see where they go.  It’s when I don’t necessarily know where I’m going that I discover surprising shortcuts, or places along the way that I wouldn’t have expected.  But I can do that because I have a basic faith that one way or another, I’ll find my way back to civilization. Now, of course, GPS can be useful as a safety net, but it still lacks the pedagogical power of engaged improvisation.

I don’t have that same confidence with, say, engine repair.  It would be nice if I did, but I don’t.  In that area, my sense of my own competence is shaky enough that the prospect of just taking parts out and seeing what happens isn’t appealing.  

In my teaching days, I remember noticing that when controversial topics came up -- when you teach political theory, there’s no way around that -- students would often flail verbally, more or less free associating, until they found a cliche that seemed to apply.  Once they had that, they held onto it tenaciously, using it as a weapon against any alternatives.  

It took me a while to figure out why they did that.  The cliche felt familiar and solid.  It offered clarity in the face of a charged and confusing discussion.  “I don’t know much, but I know this.”  I wound up spending most of the semester trying to help them get past that first impulse and to let themselves get a little bit lost in unfamiliar territory.  Until they were willing to wander -- which involved building a level of trust -- they wouldn’t really learn.

New graduates, when they get their first “adult” jobs, may fall into that same trap.  That’s part of the value of internship or co-op experiences.  If they can get some exposure to the culture of a professional workplace when the stakes are relatively low, then they’re less likely to make really mortifying rookie mistakes when the stakes are higher.  And to the extent that we can provide assignments and experiences in and among classes that give students the experience of getting a little lost and finding their way back, we may be able to build some of that tolerance for ambiguity in the kind of settings Selingo discusses.

Wise and worldly readers, have you found relatively effective ways to help students gain confidence that they can wander, without falling off a cliff?

Great post!

One of the first things it brings to my mind is math. Many students I've encountered at all levels, including some very smart ones, seem to be deathly afraid of numbers to the extent that when they see a fraction they shut down. I try to emphasize how equations and numbers are a necessary way of describing the world (Did water enter or leave the cell? What percent of the time we flip a coin do we need to get heads before we should suspect it's an unfair coin? How come -log[H+] is a great way to describe the acidity of a solution, but gives us very very wrong answers when the concentration of protons is very very very small?), but it presents a major roadblock when bright kids can't calculate a percent because they are too afraid to try.

I don't have the solution, but I'd love to see someone come up with a strategy to make more Americans math-confident; that might go a long way in making us better problem solvers.
This is the reason that I am so grateful that my daughter spent her senior year of high school at our local community college. The transition from HS senior (asking permission to use the bathroom) to college freshman (free to skip classes, stay out all night) is filled with ambiguity. My daughter will be heading off to a 4-year residential college in the fall, but because of her year at CC, she has already figured out how the administrative and academic expectations of college differ from high school. The setting will be new, dorm life will be new, but dealing with the registrars office and the freedom of a college campus will be familiar. (Too bad her community college has to count her as a drop-out. It is a shame, since CC was by far the most valuable part of her high school experience.)
CCBP&HSBT @7:24pm -

The problem with fractions starts with when (and thus by whom and how) they are first taught: Elementary school. If you find a student who says they don't like math (and I'll wager a lot choose bio among the STEM fields for that reason), ask "When did you like math?". Odds are they liked it until some unfortunate experience with fractions in K-5 (with a teacher who did not like math) or the intro to algebra in 6-8 (with a last-hire due to a shortage of qualified math teachers). Some were given math problems as punishment, or ridiculed when they got a wrong answer for a percentage, so you might be seeing a conditioned response.

Molly @6:11 -

And why I am so grateful to see dual-enrolled students, although I will add the adjustment that college classes go faster because they require learning outside of class that is not just busywork. My dad explained the difference to me, based on his experience, which gave me a leg up. Which was good, because the year of calculus I took while in HS was too easy (for me!) to provide that lesson.

BTW, I don't think dual-enrolled students count as a dropout. They just don't count at all until they enroll after graduating HS. (No minus, but also no plus except on the college's own internal records.) She will be considered FTIC when she starts college in the fall, just as I was.

CCP, yes, somewhat... It turns out that we've got some decent research telling us that third grade is also critical. In particular, if a 3rd grade teacher 'doesn't like math' then typically by the end of the grade the girls think that 'math is for boys' and the boys think that 'reading is for girls.'*

*This is only demonstrated for female teachers, we don't know what happens with male 3rd grade teachers basically because there aren't enough of them.
CCPhysicist -- I think that may be part of it, but a lot goes back to the home. I distinctly remember my mom teaching me about basic arithmetic and positive and negative numbers before I entered kindergarten (she motivated it all by telling me how much I would impress all my teachers by being grades ahead in math). Sadly, most of my students never encountered numbers at home (never saw their parents balance a check book or helped measure a wall to put up shelves).

And I was amused by your statement that
and I'll wager a lot choose bio among the STEM fields for that reason
Absolutely. When I ask why they chose bio, many speak of their hatred of math, chemistry, and physics which is laughable considering bio students encounter just as much chem as a chem minor; naturally, they suspect I must be out to torture them because I dare to make them use equations! Just this week a student who struggles tremendously with anything quantitative (and has failed all the exams on qualitative subjects too) told me that bio labs are too much thinking, so he will be switching his major to engineering upon transferring to a 4 year school...good luck.
I'm not sure if a tolerance for ambiguity is good or bad.
I'm ok with your lack of surety.

Finances are more or less the primary determinant of my willingness to tolerate risk.

CCBP&HSBT @8:02pm -

One chem prof complains that you can't even use modifying a recipe as an example of percentages because they also don't cook at home!

IMHO, schools exist to make the parent's knowledge irrelevant, but I am well aware of the advantage everyone in my family had because my parents read a lot and used math a lot (cooking as well as carpentry). That said, many of our dual-enrolled kids are homeschooled and come to college because their parents can't teach math beyond Algebra I.

And bio students also need some physics, if they want to take the MCAT, and calculus. Calculus was the downfall of my first college roommate, who needed a year just to qualify to fail calculus because he hadn't taken any math since 10th grade. Horrible HS advising.
And on the original topic of ambiguity:

The description of students in a writing class grabbing a cliche has a near-perfect analog in a physics class grabbing an equation. They really don't like ambiguous problems (such as ones where there is more data than they need, so they can't just find an equation that uses exactly what was given), let alone problems where there is too little given -- what are called "open questions" in physics teaching.

The latter address the top level in Bloom's taxonomy.
Speaking of ambiguity in physics, I had a physics professor in college who taught the entire semester without using any numbers. All problems were to be solved using symbols only. This adds the extra challenge of being unable to look at your answers and see if your numbers look reasonable ().

I remember many many peers in the class having tremendous difficulty just trying to wrap their heads around the ambiguity of doing calculations when you didn't know what the numbers were.
To CC Bio Prof & HS Bio Teacher:
I hope that when your student said he wanted to be an engineer he meant driving trains :)
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