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The Limitations of Ambiguity Models

15 January, 2016 - 09:23
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Ambiguity models add some important dimensions to the theory of educational management. The concepts of problematic goals, unclear technology and fluid participation are significant contributions to organizational analysis. Most schools and colleges possess these features to a greater or lesser extent, so ambiguity models should be regarded primarily as analytical or descriptive approaches rather than normative theories. The ambiguity model appears to be increasingly plausible but it does have four significant weaknesses:

  1. It is difficult to reconcile ambiguity perspectives with the customary structures and processes of schools and colleges. Participants may move in and out of decision-making situations but the policy framework remains intact and has a continuing influence on the outcome of discussions. Specific goals may be unclear but teachers usually understand and accept the broad aims of education.
  2. Ambiguity models exaggerate the degree of uncertainty in educational institutions. Schools and colleges have a number of predictable features, which serve to clarify the responsibilities of their members. Students and staff are expected to behave in accordance with standard rules and procedures. The timetable regulates the location and movement of all participants. There are usually clear plans to guide the classroom activities of teachers and pupils. Staff are aware of the accountability patterns, with teachers responsible ultimately to principals who, in turn, are answerable to local or State government. Educational institutions are rather more stable and predictable than the ambiguity perspective suggests: “The term organised anarchy may seem overly colourful, suggesting more confusion, disarray, and conflict than is really present” (Baldridge et al, 1978, p. 28).
  3. Ambiguity models are less appropriate for stable organizations or for any institutions during periods of stability. The degree of predictability in schools depends on the nature of relationships with the external environment. Where institutions are able to maintain relatively impervious boundaries, they can exert strong control over their own processes. Popular schools, for example, may be able to insulate their activities from external pressures.
  4. Ambiguity models offer little practical guidance to leaders in educational institutions. While formal models emphasize the head's leading role in policy-making and collegial models stress the importance of team-work, ambiguity models can offer nothing more tangible than contingent leadership.

    Ambiguity or Rationality?

    Ambiguity models make a valuable contribution to the theory of educational management. The emphasis on the unpredictability of organizations is a significant counter to the view that problems can be solved through a rational process. The notion of leaders making a considered choice from a range of alternatives depends crucially on their ability to predict the consequences of a particular action. The edifice of the formal models is shaken by the recognition that conditions in schools may be too uncertain to allow an informed choice among alternatives.

    In practice, however, educational institutions operate with a mix of rational and anarchic processes. The more unpredictable the internal and external environment, the more applicable is the ambiguity metaphor: “Organizations . . . are probably more rational than they are adventitious and the quest for rational procedures is not misplaced. However, . . . rationalistic approaches will always be blown off course by the contingent, the unexpected and the irrational” (Hoyle, 1986, p. 72).

    Cultural Models