Transparency, turbulence, ambiguity and uncertainty in #activelearning

“One student’s safe uncertainty is another student’s chaotic nightmare.”

(Orr & Shreeve, 2018)
Photo on Unsplash

Based on research I conducted with others into student satisfaction of learning (Heaton et al., 2015), being clear with students about what is expected of them has become a key principle in my thinking about good teaching. Indeed, it is part of the ‘Cs’ framework I use (see my post ‘C is for course of course’):

Clarity – good, inspirational teaching is founded on clarity. Students are well-briefed and supported and their formative and summative experiences are designed holistically so they make sense and promote learner confidence.

However, this seems to conflict with my interest in Studio for All in which uncertainty and ambiguity are celebrated as defining attributes of experiential studio-based learning (Orr & Shreeve, 2018; Austerlitz et al., 2008).

In this post I consider the compatibility of these two apparently opposing positions.

I remember being a very frustrated Fine Art student. I wanted direction and instruction. Even though I had done an Art Foundation pre-degree course, as an undergraduate I still saw an Art education as a very technical matter. I was wrong, but I didn’t yet know this.

Painting students must approach their paint, their brushes and canvas with such a technical confidence that the tools and techniques become invisible – like the keyboard to the writer, they should become second nature. Knowledge and ideas develop alongside technical proficiency. This involves a lot of failed attempts at finding one’s artistic voice. Or academic voice.

While I wanted direction, my tutors were determined to stand back and let me struggle. This created a real turbulence. It didn’t work for me. I felt adrift and unsupported. My tutors were not present enough to realise this. It was only years later that I began to realise how all this was meant to play out, and I have to say that as an experienced educator now, I am quite critical of the tutors I had – who better remain nameless!

Clarity, direction and active learning

My student experience shows there is a difference between clarifying a technical process and what knowledge discovery involves. Tools are more than the brushes and keyboards of course, they are the methods and processes we rely upon too.

Learning should be a stretch, but students need to be sure that their struggle has purpose and that they are on track. Ambiguity must feel positive as a space for self-orientation. Ensuring students have clear goals is part of this. These can be given or, even better, negotiated and navigated.

Learning design usually falls into periods of directed, self-directed, and self-determined learning. Active learning aspires to high degrees of self-determination, however this requires self-efficacy – the student must feel good about their self-pursuit of knowledge: they must know what to do, why they are doing it, and how to go about it, even if the personal route is not prescribed. In my own case, I knew what I wanted to do and why, but I was not sure how. On reflection, it is possible that I was using methods appropriately. I may have given the impression of being competent and even decisive. But looking like a good student is not the same thing as being a good student. Internally, I was lost and in turmoil, unable to make sense of what I was doing. I lacked a critical system to continuously evaluate and reconstruct my artistic strategy. In Art, this is compounded by the value put on originality and creativity – one is expected to work through a struggle to discover one’s original voice.

To be successful, all students need to find their confident academic voice or persona. This is what is known as academic fluency.

If I was giving my previous tutors feedback (a strange idea, but they really didn’t have a clue about teaching back in the day of the romantic art school), I would talk to them about the need for providing clarity within the open bounds of the art studio – establishing some guiding parameters.

Teaching is essentially quite simple in reality and has much in common with parenting. It involves,

  • a small number of ground rules to establish parameters
  • encouragement to play and to surprise oneself
  • a strong concept of scaffolding
  • regular light touch contact with tutors
  • opportunities to talk, reflect and negotiate
  • a social environment in which to learn alongside others i.e. do you own thing but find and give support through co-presence
  • modelling epistemic culture – learning to ‘be’

All of these things require minimal effort, but together establish a healthy exploratory learning environment.

Good teachers create a scholarly network around them. My tutors were absent, busy being artists in their own right. I never saw my tutor outside of the termly assessment. Modelling practice and thinking in an active learning environment brings benefits for students and tutors alike – together you can inspire each other, with the tutor being available to guide when needed.

The need for clarity in active learning should not be mistaken as a need to provide epistemic knowledge. Clarity can come from explicit direction, but it can also come from creating the right challenging and supportive learning environment.

A well-briefed student is one who is scaffolded: they are challenged and supported in equal measure, so they feel confident to enquire, explore, experiment, design, solve problems, or undertake other actions that raise their curiosity and drive themselves forward.


Austerlitz, N., Blythman, M., Grove-White, A., Jones, B., Jones, C., Morgan, S., Orr, S., Shreeve, A., & Vaughan, S., (2008). Mind the gap: Expectations, ambiguity and pedagogy within art and design higher education. In: Drew, Linda, (ed) The Student Experience in Art and Design Higher Education: Drivers for Change. Jill Rogers Associates Limited, Cambridge, pp. 125-148.

Heaton, C., Pickering, N., Middleton, A., & Holden, G. (2015). Exploring perspectives on good, inspirational teaching. SEDA Educational Developments, 16(1), 15.

Orr, S. & Shreeve, A. (2018). Art and design pedagogy in higher education: Knowledge, values and ambiguity in the creative curriculum. Routledge Research in Higher Education

About Andrew Middleton

NTF, PFHEA, committed to active learning, co-operative pedagogies, media-enhanced teaching and learning, authentic learning, postdigital learning spaces. Key publication: Middleton, A. (2018). Reimagining Spaces for Learning in Higher Education. Palgrave.
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