Paula Mirk

Ethical Literacy Lessons to Ponder This Summer: Tolerance for Ambiguity

Our seventh annual Ethical Literacy Conference was smaller than usual, yet we came away from it with bigger ideas and a stronger sense of success than in past conferences. Our ability to maintain flexibility and respond to educators' needs was key to this opportunity and underscored the importance of balancing "structure" with "free flow" in the learning process.

I'm reminded of a key research finding from our Schools of Integrity project: tolerance for ambiguity. To some extent, this finding explores teachers' competence in letting go—of lesson plans, of control, of relational power—as they become more expert in sensing and subscribing to the balance between structure and free flow in their classrooms. It's a lovely art! It means that when a student's question seems arbitrary or even intimidating, the response is to listen more closely, query to learn more, and certainly step away from the plan if the student can take you and the class on a better journey. By stepping away to some degree from our own plans for this year's conference, we were able to open up to new possibilities and learning that otherwise might not have happened. These "lessons" seemed more authentic, because they came directly from participants and were not imposed by us; they seemed more relevant since the participants generated more of the content; and based on informal queries after the fact, it was the flexibly planned, more spontaneous and responsive aspects of the conference that were most productive.

I came away from this year's conference thinking even more about the metacognitive aspects of ethical literacy, since this recent experience mirrored so much of our approach and process:

  • Make the learning active and discovery-based. Our participants are using this summer to think about the intentional ways they can get teachers and students engaged in schoolwide projects to advance a focus on integrity.
  • Make the learning relevant and authentic. While setting up projects for schoolwide engagement, our ethical literacy teams will always start with "What are the needs and opportunities we can address this school year?" Hence, the ideas and basis for the projects come directly from and make sense to those carrying them out.
  • Provide the balance. As facilitators of the ethical literacy process, our dedicated team leaders must always engage in the art form of providing enough structure to keep purpose successful, while providing enough flexibility for mistakes, for learning, and for growth. They must have a vision for what could be, suspended next to the understanding that other visions exist and could take shape.

So, while beating the heat of summer, my commitment is to thinking more deeply than ever about the metacognitive balance that must be a part of the whole child approach and process, and the beauty of this art form that constantly opens up opportunities for confirmation, growth, and fantastic new ideas!

Paula Mirk worked at whole child partner the Institute for Global Ethics (IGE) for 17 years. For the majority of her tenure, she oversaw IGE's education department. IGE collaborates with national and international organizations and with school districts large and small to integrate ethical literacy into classroom practice, school culture, and systemic reform. Connect with IGE at

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