Reducing ambiguity

In the last post I made a case for not only the teacher but also the students to increase their tolerance for ambiguity. I suggested the following approach:

  • ask about and clarify when behaviours are unexpected.
  • even better is to anticipate misunderstandings and to make as much clear from the beginning as possible.
  • there is also a clear case for giving students some awareness tools in order to make them feel more comfortable in the classroom


So what could be in the toolbox to help students become more tolerant of ambiguity?

In the language classroom

  • Texts illustrating the meaning of different actions in the target culture
  • Role plays, where it will be safer to debrief what went on and its meaning or possible meanings, than if the situation took place for real.
  • Asking often,

how do you know?


What makes you think that?

  • Encouraging students to come forward with their new understandings.

The tattoo case


By Tattooenthusiast – Took a photo of the client.Previously published: My own website., CC BY 3.0,

An example of the last strategy is when a Japanese student here in Denmark told me that she had noticed the different significance of tattoos here in Denmark and Europe. Back in Japan they are still very much the mark of criminals and mafia. She increased my understanding of the status of tattoos in Japan by telling me that foreign tourists could expect to be refused entry to hotels, swimming pools and spas in Japan because of them. She then show me that she had adapted her understanding of their significance in her current context where tattoos are very benign. Considering that the chances of one of her teachers here in Denmark having a tattoo is quite high, this is an important feature of Danish society for this woman to understand. Imagine sitting in a classroom, feeling that you are being taught by a mafia mobster!

In this case the learner had spontaneously and independently made an effort to understand something which she found puzzling. What else can we as adult ed teachers do to anticipate and facilitate this type of understanding to reduce ambiguity?

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