Living in the Mystery: Ambiguity and Open-Ended Questions and ISTE Standard #4


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“But I Just Want to Know the Right Answer!”

Teaching is a delicate balancing act. On the one hand, we have to help our students understand content, but on the other, we have to help our students become better thinkers.  Sometimes, these goals seem contradictory.  The quote above was a frustrated response I got from a student in my AP US History class a few years ago. We were going over a multiple choice quiz and she had a question on a particular answer. As we started to go over the question, I asked the students to think about what the question was really asking – to imagine it in their own words.  I then started going through the possible answers and asked the students why each particular answer could or could not be correct.  This thoughtful and deliberative process was more than this particular student could bear. She just wanted to know the right answer.  It actually doesn’t sound like an unreasonable request, does it?  Yet her frustration gives voice to the tension we teachers deal with as we try to get through content but also try to teach students to think about critical questions and to ask, “why?”

As teachers we are of two minds and we walk in two worlds: that which we know and that which we don’t.  Our students walk in the same two worlds and, like it is for some teachers, it can be frustrating, confusing, and/or embarrassing to not know something.  I remember one time when our school was going to implement a new student-led program that was, in my opinion, particularly vague and imprecise.  I mentioned some of my concerns about the seeming lack of direction to a colleague and friend of mine and she just smiled and said, “well, I guess we’ll just have to learn to live in the mystery for a while.”  While I may not have known exactly what she meant by that at the time, the one thing I was certain of was that I would not enjoy “living in the mystery.”  And I probably didn’t, but I’ve gotten better at it since then. We have to teach this willingness to exist in a state of not-knowing, of ambiguity, to our students and teach them to be OK with it.  We are all searching for answers, working towards solutions, but, as in life, the answers will not be immediately apparent.

We want to know, but we have to be OK with not knowing. Jamie Holmes addresses this tension in his book, Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing.  Linda Flanagan quotes Holmes as saying, “Our minds crave closure, but when we latch onto it prematurely we miss beautiful and important moments along the way” (Flanagan).  We have to be careful not to miss these opportunities – even if our students may not see or appreciate them at the time, or if they cause us some embarrassment by forcing us to confess we may not know something ourselves.  We also have to be Ok with the idea that not all questions have answers – or at least answers we can anticipate.  Open-ended questions are often the beginning of some of the most productive learning exercises, even if we don’t know the answer going in.  This is all part of ISTE student standard #4, indicator 4d, which looks for “Students [to] exhibit a tolerance for ambiguity, perseverance and the capacity to work with open-ended problems.” (ISTE).  It’s important.  Technology is changing our conception of education at an unprecedented pace. The mere retention of information is becoming less and less relevant as the ability to think and apply information is taking precedence.  One ISTE article agues that, “Students can no longer be content with finding the right answer because the questions are constantly changing…Students need to observe how they learn because the Innovation Age demands lifelong learning and finding solutions to unmet needs. They need to be able to research new or related topics that emerge during the fluid innovation process” (ISTE Connects).  We must prepare students to succeed in this environment.

My questions for this topic revolved around how to best go about teaching our students to deal with ambiguity and open-ended questions.  So much in our field as educators seems to revolve around “getting the right answer,” it feels like we spend precious little time dealing with how to think and what to ask; and even when we do, it is often met by resistance – sometimes from our academically strongest students. Linda Flanagan’s article on KQED’s thinking and learning webpage, “Mind/Shift” provides some help. Flanagan discusses the aforementioned book by Holmes and highlights the benefits of ambiguity in education.  She also explains how to create a positive climate that accounts for uncertainty. Flanagan provides several suggestions for the classroom.  From addressing the emotional impact of uncertainty, to assigning projects that provoke uncertainty (ie. open-ended questions), to adopting a non-authoritarian teaching style, to emphasizing current topics of debate in a particular field, to inviting guest speakers, to demonstrating the often-times non-linear and sometimes messy process of discovery, Flanagan’s suggestions are practical and useful. She even ends her article with an example of how nurturing an inquisitive mind comfortable with uncertainty at an early age can yield positive results down the road. In all, this is a helpful application of ISTE standard #4. It is good for those of us who think we have to have all the answers as well as our students who crave them. This piece is a testament to the power of not knowing.  Hopefully we can all get a little more comfortable “living in the mystery” as we make our way through the Innovation Age.


Flanagan, Linda (2015). “How to Spark Curiosity in Children Through Embracing Uncertainty.” KQED’s Mind/Shift.  Retrieved from

Holmes, Jamie (2015). Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing. New York, New York: Crown Publishing

ISTE (2016). “ISTE Standards for Students 2016.” International Society for Technology in Education. Retrieved from

ISTE Connects (2016). “Here’s How You Teach Innovative Thinking.”  International Society for Technology in Education. Retrieved from