Ambiguity Metaphor Exploration Worksheet

How do students personally relate to ambiguity? And how does that change with time?

Kelly Schmutte
Tried and Tested
Activity, Worksheet
No items found.
Purpose for Students
Make it Personal
Date Added: 
May 2019

Relationship to Ambiguity

In spring 2018, I ran an activity along with some colleagues in Teaching & Learning where we asked 150 incoming and outgoing students to reflect on their relationship to ambiguity in the form of a metaphor.

Following some synthesis of that initial experiment, we saw some interesting findings emerge. One was that we saw a breadth of types of relationships to ambiguity. You can read more about these navigation archetypes in our Dive Deeper wing (check out the colored bubble in the lower right if you haven't already!).

A second interesting finding was that students' metaphors seemed to correspond to how much exposure they'd had working on open-ended creative challenges. For example, students who had taken at least one or more classes were more likely to craft metaphors that expressed an attitude of "Engaging" or "Embracing" ambiguity, while incoming students were more likely to write "Enduring" or "Engaging" metaphors. Furthermore, those students who were exiting a class were able to look back and reflect on their attitude about ambiguity at the beginning of the class, and see how they'd changed.




Writing a personal ambiguity metaphor seemed like a powerful exercise for a student -- both to increase self-awareness around their relationship with ambiguity, and also to see how their attitudes toward ambiguous challenges can change with time.  

I designed a simple 3-part worksheet designed to guide students in reflecting on their relationship to ambiguity, centered around this metaphor crafting exercise. We used in in both ME115a: Introduction to Human Values in Design in the fall of 2018, and ME377: Design Thinking Studio in winter 2019.  

Part 1 asks students to reflect back on a specific time they experienced ambiguity over the past year, and then populate a map  (zoned for "self," "team," and"project") with moments of ambiguity and notes on how they responded.  Part 2 then asks students to craft a metaphor about their attitude toward ambiguity based on that experience.  Part 3 asks students to reflect on the tools, methods, mindsets, etc. that they already rely on to navigate uncertain situations.

To tee up the activity, we introduced the concept of Navigating Ambiguity as a meta-ability in creative design work through several slides, and shared one example metaphor (ocean exploration).  We then had students work through the activity sheet individually, sharing with peers along the way.  We also invited students to share metaphors globally.  

We then collected students' sheets, and held onto them for the duration of the quarter.  We handed them back to students at the very end of the quarter, as part of a "time capsule" package.  At that time, we asked students to look back, and: 1.) craft a NEW metaphor for ambiguity, based on where they were at that moment, and 2.) to consider what was in their "oxygen tank" at that moment.  We also asked them to write a 2-paragraph reflection that started with the mad-lib "I used to think _______________, and now I think __________________."




Metaphor is really a powerful way to richly capture complex feelings, and to also capture transformation.  

We also noticed that in the beginning of class, it was useful for students' to hear their peers attitudes about ambiguity vocalized through different metaphors.  

At the end of class, many students had shifted their attitude about ambiguity in authentic ways.  

Metaphor statements make for great viewing.  Put them up!

Sharing the ambiguity archetypes can be done later down the line... they provide great lenses for reflection/looking back.

Design Abilities Used

By asking students to reflect and then create/capture, the activity by nature exercises Synthesizing Information. When students have to translate abstract feelings into a representative metaphor, they have to Move between Concrete and Abstract. Metaphors are short and pithy -- great ways to exercise skills in Communicating Deliberately!


Both Carissa Carter and Mark Grundberg were instrumental in coming up with the mapping part of the activity, as well as running the metaphor activity. Thanks also to the surrealist artist René Magritte (whose art appears in the worksheet) for providing whimsical and deeply thought-provoking art rich with ambiguity.

Designed by:

Kelly Schmutte
Kelly Schmutte
Curriculum Designer and Lecturer, Stanford + Founder, PerfectFit Pointe

Design Abilities Used

Synthesize Information
Move Between Concrete + Abstract
Communicate Deliberately
Learn More about Design Abilities 


This work is the original work of the Designer(s). It is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution- Noncommercial-Share Alike 4.0 International License. To view a copy of this license, visit:

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