Argument for Ambiguity

I got directed to a recent piece about tolerance for ambiguity as a job requirement and a skill education should help develop through this quote from a responding blog post: “To the extent that we can provide assignments and experiences in and among classes that give students the experience of getting a little lost and finding their way back, we may be able to build some of that tolerance for ambiguity in the kind of settings Selingo discusses.”

While the original article focuses more on the idea of a “growth mind-set” and encouraging students to think of perseverance rather than innate intelligence as their most valuable asset, from a higher education perspective, I find the reflections about the value of introducing ambiguity into assignments more compelling. Another quote that echoes what I see in my students when presenting them with open-ended, and thus ambiguous, assignments: “In thinking about my own tolerance for ambiguity, I wouldn’t call it high or low. It varies, and I think the major independent variable is my own feeling of competence in the situation. When I feel like I can handle whatever the situation is likely to throw at me, ambiguity isn’t a problem. When I’m utterly lost, ambiguity can feel threatening. The key issue isn’t so much ambiguity or the lack thereof, but its possible outcome and my own sense of vulnerability.”

I see precisely this tension in students every semester, particularly those that are new to our courses and the expectation that they take responsibility for exploring options and refining the scope of a problem for themselves that is common through most of them. It’s a tricky balancing act to present just enough uncertainty in assignments that they get to have this valuable experience, but not so much that the feeling of vulnerability blocks their openness to exploring. This framing of why the ambiguity is intentional, and its role as an employment skill, is an interesting angle on explaining the assignment design to students.

On a bit of a tangent, and returning to the original article, there is one sentence that jumped out to me as odd: “As artificial intelligence increasingly makes many jobs obsolete, success in the future will belong to those able to tolerate ambiguity in their work.” I suspect the point here is that tolerance for ambiguity is one of the higher-level problem-solving skills that are hard to automate out of the work force. But from an artificial intelligence standpoint, this statement is odd because the gap between artificial intelligence versus simply computer automation frequently comes from AI being able to tolerate ambiguity and still function. This doesn’t invalidate the larger point – if ability to function outside strict parameters is one of our tests for successful artificial intelligence, no surprise that employers would like the same characteristic in their intelligent human employees. But on a technical level, this statement jumped out at me as missing some of what is exciting in AI work.

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