In the documentary Design & Thinking Udaya Patnaik states, “in an ambiguous problem you don’t know what you don’t know. The situation is changing constantly and you don’t necessarily have one path that you can follow. You have to be responsive and adaptive to whatever the situations are and how they are changing.”

Ambiguous problems are far more complicated then complex problems. Complex problems in schools are ones where you may not know the answer, but nevertheless feel comfortable enough with the subject matter to be able to work towards a solution, often under a given time constraint. Ambiguous problems are a different beast. They are problems that you don’t know the answer to, don’t know how you might go about working it out and in fact don’t even know if there is a solution. These are big hairy, scary and audacious problems that we often do our best to avoid. Why?

I think there are three main reasons 1) we think that the teachers job is to “know” and to “teach” 2) we feel perceived pressure from the students who expect the teacher to know the solution before the question is asked and 3) we feel perceived pressure from colleagues and parents. None of these pressures are actually real. Subconsciously we live in a self-imposed prison where we think someone “out there” expects us to do something in a particular way. It reminds me of Inception.

Ambiguous problems take us from comments like “we will cover that next year” or “that won’t be on the test” to “you know what, I have no idea. But let’s figure this out together.” Ambiguous problems are a stance that shifts the pseudo to the real. It makes the statement that it’s actually ok to not know. Of course as professionals we need broad and deep knowledge of subject disciplines, a sense of empathy and pedagogical understanding, but to consistently play it safe actually does kids a disservice. Doing things in the classroom where there is a real chance that we won’t be able to come up with the answer models what it’s like to learn.

During my first year of my undergraduate degree, I was taking a third year mathematics subject as I was quite confident in my own abilities (little did I know how much I didn’t know).  I remember one class in particular. A professor, mid way through explaining a particularly difficult problem, struggled for almost fifteen minutes, mostly at the board, making mistakes, scribbling a solution to only rub it out again, occasionally thinking out loud and then mumbling different things to the class. At the time I thought “gee, this guy is a professor. He doesn’t even know what he is talking about. He obviously didn’t prepare for the class…” It wasn’t till almost two years later (and a much greater level of maturity) that I realized what a powerful learning moment this was.  I got to see one of the greatest minds at the University dealing with an incredibly complex problem that he had confidence in his ability to tackle, and also the persistence and patience to be able to share visibly the way he struggled toward a solution.

Papert shares an analogy,

If I wanted to become a better carpenter, I’d go find a good carpenter, and I’ll work with this carpenter on doing carpentry or making things. And that’s how I’ll get to be a better carpenter. So if I want to be a better learner, I’ll go find somebody who’s a good learner and with this person do some learning. But this is the opposite of what we do in our schools. We don’t allow the teacher to do any learning. We don’t allow the kids to have the experience of learning with the teacher because that’s incompatible with the concept of the curriculum where what is being taught is what’s already known.

Dive into the unknown tomorrow. Start with the ambiguous. Invite students to live the process with you, to see the struggle and to share the joy of triumph that you can only feel when solving something that you didn’t think was possible.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: