Creative Ambiguity

In learning, ambiguity is where the thinking, learning, & creativity, takes place.

By Dana Squires, a teaching artist in Washington State. 

Music is the space between the notes.”

– Claude Debussy

(Birds on a Wire Pierre St John)

The Importance of Ambiguity:

In visual artwork the “empty” space between the primary shapes is called negative space. But this space is actually not at all negative and is the all-important framework for the entire piece. In learning, also, the empty space, or, ambiguity, is where the thinking, the real learning, the creativity, takes place.

I try to include a healthy dose of ambiguity into each and every project.

Ambiguity means having no preconceived “right answer” or set outcome. This means that there is no one way to proceed. When you intentionally include ambiguity in a lesson, there is space for the student not only to find their own answer in their own way but to define the question being asked. Ambiguity forces one to look at things from multiple perspectives and encourages critical thinking.

For many, ambiguity is uncomfortable, even scary. Students can be afraid of not knowing what is expected, doing something wrong or making a mistake. Learning to navigate ambiguity and practice doing so is an important part of learning to learn. Not knowing can be an invitation for creative problem-solving,

Image: Students in Squires’ class creating visual narratives from simple shapes

How to Include Ambiguity:

Providing a safe place to explore is the first step. As students gain practice with ambiguity, they become more comfortable recognizing, and valuing, the process of not-knowing. As they move through it, they begin to recognize and value their own instincts and unique point of view. You can find simple opportunities to help students build this confidence by having them navigate and define situations for themselves.
For example, dividing a class into groups? Instead of numbering off, ask the students to divide themselves into three groups by clothing color and allow them to collectively define what that means. They’ll have to decide on both the questions and the answers, such as…”What three colors?” …”Does the blue and yellow striped shirt go to the blue group?” Maybe – or maybe the students decide to have a multicolored or patterned group.

Exercises like these have clear outlines (divide into three groups) but provide freedom for interpretation within those borders (no defined groups.) Students are given the license to interpret the situation in their own unique way and choose how to respond.

In upper elementary classrooms I take students for a walk around campus to collect 8-10 items (leaves, twigs, rocks…).

Back in the classroom, I ask each student to put their items in order. I let them decide what is meant by “order” without giving examples. The first response is usually the most obvious, and everything is in line by size.

The class discusses the choices they made. But ask students to put the objects in another order, and may things get more interesting. Things are often ordered by type (e.g. leaves, then rocks), color or shape.

Ask for a third order. Here students begin to get more creative. Things are put in alphabetical order or by “sharpness” or other unique categories emerge.

The point is there are many “orders” in which the objects can be arranged. All of the solutions are “correct.” The students have fun trying to think of creative new orders. I like to document the different groupings in photos for the wall, validating that all solutions were equally valid.

Exercises like these give students practice feeling more confident navigating ambiguous situations. They gain confidence in taking small risks and are prepared to take larger risks in the future.

Students go from “What SHOULD I do?” to “What are the possibilities?”

That is what ambiguity does. It allows possibilities.

Dana Squires

Dana Squires has 20 years of experience as an arts integration specialist and teaching artist in Washington State, USA. She has taught in schools at all levels, teaching art, doing collaborative arts integration work, and teacher training. She has worked with refugee organizations, with learners of English as a Second Language, and lived and worked at the village level in both West Africa and Melanesia. Dana studied Making Thinking Visible concepts through The Graduate School of Education at Harvard University.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This