Solutions and re-solutions for education

Solving Lives: Managing Uncertainty and Ambiguity

Posted by Dr. Ann P. McMahon on January 23, 2011

How do you deal with uncertainty and ambiguity in your life? We can’t avoid them. They’re part of being human. If we’re fortunate, we’ve had enough positive experiences with important others early in life that we perceive the world as a safe and welcoming place. We hold representations of people we love and have loved inside us – our family members, friends, teachers and others. We draw on our attachments to these people – our internal representations of them – for support and comfort when we try something new or take a risk. In this way, our attachments to important others help us flow with the uncertainty and ambiguity of everyday life.

When engineers are presented with a problem, they rarely have complete clarity about the problem or all of the information necessary to solve it. Smart engineering teams spend considerable time at the beginning of a project gathering as much information as possible in order to define the problem and create a shared representation of it inside each team member and for others to see in the form of words, pictures and/or mathematical equations and graphs. Team members draw on each other’s skills and ideas as each of them reduces for herself and for the group the ambiguity about what is needed. Once the group has tackled ambiguity and defined the problem, team members brainstorm possible solutions. Then each one of them uses systematic methods to reduce uncertainty about each possible solution enough so that the team members can agree on a best solution to try.

Engineers can never eliminate uncertainty in a solution, but they can systematically reduce it to tolerable levels. My insightful friend with several engineers in her life notices that we use this approach to solve and re-solve our lives as we live them. These can be adaptive skills for work and life.

I have worked in enough high needs schools to know that many students come to preschool and elementary school without secure attachments to important others who provide the child with an internal sense of stability. For these children, managing the uncertainty and ambiguity that goes along with school-based learning can be overwhelming, and that overwhelmed feeling can inhibit their performance in school. Teachers and administrators who are sensitive both to children’s emotional needs and cognitive needs can provide all students practice dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty by adopting engineering team challenges as part of the school’s curriculum. Interesting and meaningful challenges invite all students to engage in a variety of roles, and the systematic nature of the engineering process enables the teacher to contain the uncertainty and ambiguity of the tasks to levels tolerable for students. In this way, cognitive and emotional learning can happen together.

Fear and curiosity…like oil and water in the brain

Coming up…
The difference between school science and school engineering
Engineering in the strength-based classroom


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