The Value of Ambiguity

I have just finished all my grades for the last quarter of the year and will finalize them tomorrow morning. After a full-year inquiry unit that asks my students to ponder, “What is the purpose of education?” my final exam was for my ninth-grade students to answer that question any way they wanted. By “any way they wanted” I mean both content – there was no one right answer – and form – they could write an essay, a synthesis essay, a short story, a comic strip series or short graphic story, a poem, or even short play.

I was happy to read their responses, because I received both wildly varying content – there were as many answers as there were students in my classes – but also because I received widely varying forms – a potpourri of the genres I’d mentioned above. What pleased me even more was that none of them asked me if they were getting the right answer. I told them before they began that I still wasn’t entirely sure what the purpose of education was, even at the end of my 30th year of teaching!

I did receive a few of the fearful “Can I…?” questions that put on full display how much my students have been trained to please the teacher, to meet the outward demands of a rubric, rather than to set their own goals and meet them. A couple of students even dared to ask me, “Does it have to be 5 paragraphs?” Students around them groaned my frustration for me. I merely put on my best Yoda voice (I do good Muppet voices) and said, “Here you nothing that I say?”

It seems that so much of schooling, and, sadly, English classes in particular, teach our students that there is one right way to write and one right answer to everything. We train them to want to be certain, and to write with certainty. We teach them to have a firmly held, clearly stated claim and back it up with evidence. We teach them to obliterate counterclaims and to avoid ambiguity. We teach them that this is clear thinking and good writing.

And sometimes it is.

But not always. Sometimes, there isn’t one right answer. Sometimes it’s okay to admit we don’t know. But students feel they have to be certain about everything, because we live in a culture that worships certainty. I sometimes wonder if one of the true purposes of education, one of the true signs of intellectual health is being willing to live with uncertainty, to embrace what Keats called “negative capability” – the ability to accept uncertainties, mysteries, and doubts, which Shakespeare had an abundance of as he jumped into the perspective of every character who populated every one of his plays.

I used to teach the Holocaust memoir The Sunflower to 8th graders. The premise of the book is given away on the cover, so it isn’t a spoiler to tell you that it is the true story of Simon Wiesenthal, a Jew in a concentration camp who is called into the hospital room of a dying Nazi. The Nazi tells Simon his life story, including the terrible things he has done to Jews. He then tells Simon that he feels terrible about what he’s done – and that he has called Simon to his side as he dies so that Simon, as a Jew, can forgive him. The first half of the books ends with Simon asking the reader, “What would you have done?” The second half of the book is a collections of essays – 53 writers, philosophers, and theologians, answering that question. They all answer it a bit differently.

My follow up assignment was to have my students write their own essay about what they would have done. Some students would come to me and say, “I want to say I wouldn’t forgive him – but I’m not sure if that’s the answer you want.” Note that they didn’t say, “I’m not sure that’s the right answer.” Not knowing if it’s the right answer is to acknowledge uncertainty, to live in negative capability. They thought I had one right answer in mind and that their answer had to match mine.

“Hear you nothing that I say?” I assured them that I had no one answer in mind. I wrote a new Sunflower essay each year, and my answers changed from year to year.

Michel de Montaigne, often considered the father of the modern essay, considered writing an essay and act of exploration – to find out what you think rather than expressing what you think. In The Courage to Teach, Parker J. Palmer says that he often doesn’t know exactly what he thinks until he writes it. In the Taylor Mali poem, “Like Lily Like Wilson,” a student wants to change her point of view about her topic. When she asks if this is acceptable, the teacher answers that “changing your mind is one of the best ways/ of finding out whether or not you still have one.”

We need to let students wrestle with ambiguity more. To let themselves not be so certain all the time. In our rush to have finished essays on our desks by a due date, I wonder if we are not giving students enough time to really think about their topic from all sides.

What I’ve also discovered is that real writing grows out of ambiguity and paradox as much as it grows out of certainty. I think a lot of fiction writing comes out of authors wanting to explore ideas they are struggling with rather than express ideas they are certain of, and that much of the joy of reading fiction comes in wrestling with that same ambiguity as a reader. Madeleine L’Engle wrote A Wrinkle in Time, in part, to work out her struggle to reconcile faith and science. An even stronger ambiguity – and a similar theme – powers the ending of Yan Martel’s Life of Pi. My own writing has been powered by similar ambiguities and themes – a novel called Faithful Unto Death and a play about Johannes Kepler titled The Music of the Spheres. (I need to start sending them out to publishers and theaters…)

I know that ambiguity may be hard to institute in a class, and hard to justify when students are judged on clarity of thought. What I tell my students is that in a finished product, fiction or nonfiction, their ambiguity must be a paradox: clear ambiguity. The reader must not be merely baffled, but left with something clear to think about.

I’ll end with two unambiguous ways to utilize ambiguity.

One is to have have students create an ambiguity map. I have students do lots of topic maps at the start of year: an enthusiam map of things they love, a frustration map of things they hate, a worry map of fears, and wonder map of things they wonder about or that give them a sense of wonder. I have now added a fifth map: an ambiguity map. Things you just aren’t sure about. These can be less-important things like “Do UFOs exist?” but they can also be things of more import: How can we be anti-censorship, yet still admit some texts and content are not age appropriate? Is the internet good or bad or both? Is technological progress really good for humanity and the environment? If those aren’t good places to start exploring something in writing, I don’t know what is.

Which brings me to my second way to utilize ambiguity: let students freewrite and explore things they aren’t sure about. It doesn’t even have to be a rough draft – it can just be an exploration. Let them wrestle with ideas rather than start out with a certain thesis they aren’t really certain about.

Letting students deal with ambiguity is good for them as writers, learners, and people.

I’m certain of it.

Image via Created by David Lee Finkle.

How do you help students explore rather than just make claims? How do you help your students get comfortable with ambiguity? Connect with me on Twitter @DLFinkle or on Facebook at

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  1. Thanks for commenting! You are correct about them not wanting to get anything wrong. They expect there to be one right answer, one right way to do everything. It stultifies their thinking and diminishes there creativity! Sadly, it isn’t just the system – it’s also other teachers…

  2. I enjoyed everything about this. I frequently taught mini-lessons in my middle school ESL class that were set up for everyone to make a mistake or get a wrong answer, then we’d discuss how making mistakes and not knowing is part of the process of learning and not an indication of intelligence or value. And as an author, most writing comes out of the beautifully simple but ambiguous question of …what if? Thanks for sharing.

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