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Support Discomfort with Ambiguity


Mathematics Science Social-Emotional Learning/Growth Mindset 21st Century Skills All Ages Strategy


Flexible Thinking Self-regulation Abstract Reasoning

Support Discomfort with Ambiguity

You've always had the power my dear, you just had to learn it for yourself.
— Glinda the Good Witch

Math and science learning requires a greater amount of comfort with confusion, uncertainty and abstract concepts than other core subjects which can feel discomforting for some students.

How To Apply It!

  1. For students who are uncomfortable with ambiguity or not knowing the answer, continued reassurance and confidence building is key.
  2. Help students realize that confusion is normal and experienced by everyone, even classmates who might not show or admit it.
  3. Keep in mind that often the greatest amount of confusion precedes the "aha" moment or breakthrough in understanding. Be sure to offer added encouragement during that peak of confusion.
  4. Provide opportunities to ask questions and discuss problems away from peers. Often students are concerned about "silly questions" which are usually not silly. Those questions often clarify points of confusion for all students.
  5. Make it a goal to keep students motivated and wanting to persevere through the challenge rather than a singular focus on the right answer.
  6. Avoid an over-emphasis on following a rubric and more on conceptual understanding. Rubrics can cause more confusion when the problem doesn't exactly follow the rule. If students memorize the rubric they can get even more frustrated and confused when the problem doesn't fit the pattern.

Why It Works (the Science Of Learning)!

Everyone experiences some amount of discomfort with novel and abstract concepts. Some students do not show their discomfort or are simply more comfortable with the level of uncertainty. Other students might feel alone in their confusion, assume they are "not good at it" and give up as a result. Encouraging children with a simple "you're almost there" can be the support they need to work through the difficulty. And of course, success breeds confidence and self-confidence fosters learning. Hopefully, over time the uncomfortable feelings might dissipate or the student will grow more accepting of the discomfort.