The tolerance of ambiguity

This blog started life as a comment on Debra Kidd’s article for #blogsync – Progress? It’s more complicated than they’d have you believe! however, as it grew I thought it might deserve a place of its own and so have decided to also publish it here and add it to the #bogsync list.


Brian Edmiston prefers complex to complicated and I think I agree. Complicated is what the data-trackers, progress mapping charts and APP assessment forms (unintentionally) make of the process of evaluating progress. They are tools of empirical science that want to take shifting, complex processes and re-interpret them as a matrix of data.

The purpose of this is to give teachers, schools, parents and inspectors clear objective information for assessment, tracking and accountability.

All good sound motivations. Unfortunately, rather than simplifying matters, they actually make things far more complicated and ironically do more to deflect teachers from the real practical purpose of teaching and learning than almost anything else.

This paradox is wonderfully captured by a metaphor from Donald Schön, shared by Roo Stenning @TheRealMrRoo,

Edmiston argues educationalists need to embrace complexity – what Dorothy Heathcote called developing a tolerance of ambiguity – and actively resist models that look to define complex social reality into data-sets and reduce progress as steady linear growth.

The development of data-tracking software has had an unintended effect on lesson evaluation and by extension teaching practice, by reducing the complex messy process of learning into an objectively measurable and observable phenomenon. This outcome pretends to invest inspectors with super-human powers of observation and has terrified many teachers into game-playing the whole teaching and learning process for the purposes of accountability.

This does a disservice to the practice of pedagogy and damages the link between useful formative assessment and genuine learning experiences. Pushing (a very unhelpful metaphor) children up linear, objectively defined and measured, pathways often results in confusion and stress as learners are introduced to new learning before they have grasped a sufficient understanding of the last.

Empirical progress mapping has its place and is important for accountability and for giving broad indicators over time, but it is always contingent and always liable to critical analysis. After all behind the numbers are human-beings not rolling stock.

Becoming an expert teacher who can make expert professional judgements of children’s progress takes time and practice in the classroom. APP and other systems can help in this learning process, but they are not a substitute for the expert opinion of a teacher who knows the learners well and can make a thousand informed observations and evaluations every hour and use this information to adapt, innovate and respond as a result.

Let’s not confuse assessing progress for formative learning, with record-keeping for accountability.


  1. April 2013 #blogsync: Progress EDUTRONIC | #blogsync - May 12, 2013

    […] Tim Taylor: Tolerance for ambiguity – The difference between complex and complicated. […]

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