Education and ambiguity

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Dr Holly Foss
Dr Holly Foss

“His priority seemed to be not to teach them what he knew but rather to impress upon them that nothing […] was foolproof.” [Harry on Firenze’s Teaching, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix]. 

Dr Holly Foss talks about the future of education and how ambiguity and the unknown is a necessity for our development.

August is typically a strangely busy time of the year for those of us working in education. We are focusing on planning for the next academic year, wrapping up loose ends from the current year, trying to fit in some research and professional development, and frantically looking forward to that all important and much needed annual leave. Like many things at the moment, this August is different. The planning is a logistical and creative maze, the loose ends are bigger and fraying, and the annual leave is questionable – without the luxury of time for research and development. 5 months since lockdown began in the UK, ambiguity and uncertainty has become a daily reality. And as measures ease, even more so.

Students in learning space, credit to Pexels
Students in learning space, credit to Pexels

Colleagues throughout the education sector are devising plans A, B, and C for the coming year; where the face-to-face lecture hall of television may be a thing of the past and the student numbers are as predictable as winning the lottery. Designing a fruitful educational experience for an unknown cohort of students, to take place in an unknown format or space, is a headache that could contravene the idea of student-centred learning.

Across the sector, this is being tackled by new models of learning combining in person and online activities, with seamless integration between the two. This is being described by a range of terms: bimodal, hy-flex, hybrid learning to name a few. Pedagogically, flexible learning provides great opportunities for inclusivity and for student development within what can be a great, challenging learning environment. Practically, operating within additional institutional, governmental, and societal layers of ambiguity at times feels insurmountable.

As an arts and humanities graduate, with my research interests in queer theory and critical pedagogy, I had considered myself well equipped to deal with ambiguity. It’s a key focus for my work, after all. I have, however, quickly realised the gap between pedagogy, theory, and critical thought and the practical requirements for teaching. Indeed, educational practice in this environment is difficult. The learning experience itself can be an opportunity for development in navigating ambiguity. However, for this to be successful, shared experiences, expectations, and communication are essential.

Despite the difficulty, I’d argue that ambiguity is a necessity for our development. It forces us to challenge certainties, black and white thinking, and the concrete, to instead deal in possibilities, grey areas, and blurring boundaries. It helps us become more critical, more thinking, and more accepting. Ambiguity encompasses all areas from inclusivity for people of all genders, backgrounds, ethnicities, religions, sexualities, and more, to agile working practices and new ways of working. And for engineers, accepting and exploring ambiguity is essential to appropriately assess the latest societal challenges, problems, and innovations. For students graduating now, who are global citizens, being able to function in an ambiguous space is of great importance. But teaching this is no mean feat, particularly in STEM, where universal laws, truths, and scientific fact abound. We can support ambiguity through critical questioning problems and potential solutions, through celebrating when there is no one right answer, and through asking questions to generate discussion. Yet the challenge remains around how to integrate this in teaching and learning opportunities; although, I suppose there is no one answer for this…

Directions, credit to Pixabay
Directions, credit to Pixabay

High Speed Rail: Education Conference, December 2020 

How are you managing ambiguity in your education practices? Our call for papers and posters for the High Speed Rail: Education Interchange conference, taking place in December 2020 is now open. We’re looking for abstracts showcasing innovative approaches to railway education, training and knowledge transfer. Find out more on our website.

BCRRE offer a range of opportunities for study and research in rail, from undergraduate to PhD. You can find details about our courses here.

If you’re interested in research in the area of critical pedagogy and queer theory, please contact Dr Holly Foss,


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