Teachers’ Inability to Deal with Ambiguity

We all understand the need for rules. If some us decided to drive on the left side of the road while others choose the right side, roads would be very dangerous. The consequences for violating that traffic rule can vary. You may be stopped by a police officer and given a citation… you may draw the ire of other drivers and experience various levels of road rage directed at you… you may cause an accident. For safety, the rule is clearly defined and unambiguously applied (of course at the discretion of the police officer investigating your violation of the rule).

In schools, adults define rules. The strategies we employ to define rules vary. Some are defined by laws or policies and those are enforced by the officials elected to govern our schools. We also define rules to make sure we account for what needs accounting. Attendance reporting, purchase orders, and similar procedures all ensure we properly document what happens in the school.

Compared to the rationale for driving rules and the rationale for organizational rules for, the rationale for classroom rules are more ambiguous. Why do we not wear hats? Why do we not carry backpacks? Why do we set any rules?

One of the “things” we expect students to learn in school (at least one of the “things” they surely need in the global culture dominated by digital technologies) is the ability to deal with ambiguity. “The rules” may depend on who is around, what time of day it is, what is happening at the moment, and many other factors.

Many teachers advocate “risk-taking” in some aspects of school. They do so because school is a “safe” space to fail. “Try it,” they say, “we are here to support you if it goes wrong.” Their rationale is quite clear and it is grounded in their desire for students to gain experience with this aspect of learning and life that is permanent.

Many of those same teachers, however, are also strong advocates for rules that are common to all classrooms and spaces. It seems we want students to gain experience taking risks, but we do not want them gaining experience navigating ambiguous rules? I am confused by this.

Surely, we need some rules. When safety and operations are concerned, rules we follow make us effective and efficient. In other cases… especially when conduct is concerned, I think we need to have ambiguity.

You are not “throwing my colleagues under the bus” when you violate the insignificant rules of your school in your classroom. You are introducing ambiguity. You have a duty to explain it to students and others. They have a duty to listen and understand and to recognize the importance of ambiguity in schools.