Answers... & Ambiguity LO6531
Tue, 9 Apr 1996 02:04:43 -0400

Replying to LO6496 --

In this message, I want to respond to comments related to "ambiguity" from
several people, and open up a thread on parallels between helping people
learn to deal with ambiguity in schools and in learning organizations.
I'm going to sketch out the parallels as I see them in hopes of getting
some feedback based on your organizational experiences.

In a message dated 96-04-08 22:15:45 EDT, Rol Fessenden writes:

>Ralph Meima says that comfort with ambiguity varies across cultures, and
>that is far more acceptable in Sweden for example than in Germany or the
>This implies to me that it -- comfort with ambiguity -- is at least in
>part a culturally and/or educationally developed trait, and not a
>developmental phase that is common to all humans. Joanna, are you there?
>Does this make sense? How should we change education to increase comfort
>with ambiguity?

Yes, Rol, I am here. I've been lurking again. Thank you for asking.
Great questions. I thought your earlier "grand simplification" of my
first message (LO 6335) was very helpful.

I wholeheartedly agree that the ability to deal with ambiguity is
educationally developed, and probably culturally influenced as well (but
I'm a psychologist, not an anthropologist--I would love to hear an
anthropological perspective on this topic).

Because environments can influence comfort with ambiguity, and because
ambiguity is inherent in organizations, I see a striking convergence
between ideal (IMO) educational environments and successful learning

In education, democratic, participative approaches consistently promote
learning AND complex, contextual thinking. After tracking research on
education for development for about 20 years, I have come to believe that
people grow and learn most when they:

*learn skills through instruction, practice, coaching, and feedback
*have responsibility for decisions, and learn skills for decision making
*have control over their own learning, and learn skills for self-management
*have opportunities to learn with and from each other, and learn skills for
team learning
*have opportunities to learn from their own experiences, and learn skills
for reflecting on experience
*are challenged to give reasons for their statements, and learn reasoning
skills and inquiry strategies
*are supported by others as they grope around trying to make sense of
things--and learn skills of empathy.

Is there a pattern here? Somewhere along the line people got stuck on
"positive reinforcement" but the picture is now far more complex and
interesting, and I believe, parallel in many ways to learning

A key vehicle for all of these factors is "collaborative learning"--a huge
buzz word in education today. The research favoring collaborative
learning over "traditional" forms such as lecture is staggering. In
structured collaborative groups, even sixth graders can develop ways to
deal with ambiguity. In one study, they even did the unheard-of: they
went to the library voluntarily in search of additional information for
their group discussions. College students who work in teams generally
outperform themselves as individuals. And so on.

Collaborative learning helps people see that there is more than one way to
approach a problem. It brings out thought processes and mental models so
they can be organized, elaborated, and tested. Collaborative learning
must be "scaffolded," however, like any other complex skill (that is,
learning is supported through instruction, practice, coaching and
feedback). People don't just do it well the first time they find
themselves in a group.

In organizations, we are seeing a reorientation toward participative
decision making, flat hierarchies, and teamwork. I think these changes
signal a major shift in western culture from an individualist to a
collectivist paradigm. To handle the ambiguity resulting from these
changes, we find it necessary to invent or reclaim tools for deep
learning--ways to surface our mental models; system archetypes to help us
find patterns in "chaotic" phenomena; dialogue to explore meaning
together, and communication technologies designed to capture and build on
organizational learning.

My guess is that well-designed learning organizations, like well-designed
educational programs, promote greater comfort with ambiguity by
identifying and "scaffolding" the requisite skills. "Well-designed" means
they provide tools people can use to explore and find a path through the
ambiguity instead of having to avoid it. They also provide opportunities
for people to use those tools to influence their environment (my
definition of "empowerment").

A workplace (or school) with these characteristics ought to come close to
fulfilling the promise of Rolf Osterberg's wonderful statement, quoted
recently by Peter H. Jones

>Subj: Who wants to "learn"? LO6283
<snip snip>
>"Work, as every other aspect of life, is a process, through which we acquire
>experiences and insights and grow inwardly....

>"The primary purpose of a company is to serve as an arena for the personal
>development of those working in the company. The production of goods and
services >and the making of profits are by-products."

(From: Corporate Renaissance, 1993;

Creating an environment for growth, whether in education or the workplace,
is slow going--and full of ambiguities. I'm grateful for the opportunity
to learn from and with the people who share their ideas so generously on
this list. If you've gotten this far, I hope you'll respond!

Joanne Gainen
MTD & Associates
Specializing in 360-degree feedback for communication enrichment, performance
improvement, and team development

PS Developmental "stages" of ambiguity --for the theoreticians in the

It would be too strong to treat the various ways of dealing with ambiguity
as universal developmental "stages." ("Stage" has a definite technical
meaning in developmental psychology.) There is a certain logic to the
progression I described in my first message, and some pretty good
supporting evidence from many college environments. But there is also a
lot of evidence that people don't deal with all forms of uncertainty in
the same ways, even at the same point in their lives. The idea of
"perspectives" or "positions" toward knowledge in a particular context is
less confining than "stages" for me.

Another way of looking at ambiguity is a personality trait or tendency, or
a "disposition." Still another is to consider "managing ambiguity" a
skill or set of skills, a kind of expertise one develops with practice,
coaching, and feedback.

I'm an optimist--if it is developmental it can be helped along by a rich
environment. If "comfort with ambiguity" is a skill, it can be acquired.
If it's a disposition, it can be cultivated. In any case, organizations
can tend to suppress it or support it.

Joanne Gainen


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