The Blog

Teaching Being Wrong

We require "internal flexibility and communal permission to backtrack and revise." Can we get schools to value teaching this skill, and skilled educators who can teach this value?
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TED2011 took place last week in Long Beach, Calif. I had a front-row seat -- facing my laptop, reading tweets from attendees. Sad, maybe, but also satisfying, thanks to the smart and witty people I follow. One of the speakers I wanted to see was Kathryn Schulz, author of Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error.

There's been a lot of discussion lately about the connection between creativity and learning (Sir Ken Robinson's viral TED Talk comes to mind, as does No Right Brain Left Behind), and the difficulty (impossibility?) of being creative if you're afraid of being wrong.

Yet afraid we are. In her book, Schulz explains how we long for "control over the world, mastery of our environment," and how "surprise is a violation of our expectations." Being wrong, she says, is "dangerous, humiliating, distasteful, and, all told, un-fun in the extreme."

TED curator Chris Anderson recently told Charlie Rose, "if you start with curiosity, that takes you on an amazing journey...that's almost all you be curious about the world." But Schulz warns our fear of being wrong is so strong it "acts as a kind of omnipurpose coagulant ... cooling our curiosity about the world."

So what are we teaching students (who eventually grow up to become our friends, partners, colleagues, leaders) about being wrong?

One thing we're teaching is there's no time to be wrong -- until you take a test. A typical middle or high school class is scheduled within a minute of its life. We stuff content and activities into 50-minute periods that deserve days or weeks to unpack. Picture bulging bellies and stressed buttons post-Thanksgiving, when we've consumed far more than is reasonably digestible in one sitting. Now picture bulging and stressed minds. There's little time to explore material, ask questions, confirm or correct assumptions. There's little time to learn.

We don't have time to get it right in school, yet we're also teaching we can't afford to get it wrong. Test scores impact everything from our GPA to which classes and teachers we can access to our reputation and self-esteem. Approach your coursework with wonder -- as it relates to what will be on next week's test.

We're teaching we can't change our minds -- we thought one thing, but now we think we were wrong. And that's because we don't foster self-esteem, the ability to develop a point of view, and the confidence to maintain or change that point of view. For a meta discussion of this point, see Schulz's Slate blog/interview with education reformer Diane Ravitch, in which Ravitch discusses her radical change of mind, and the recent HuffPostEdu piece by Alexander Russo, in which he attacks Ravitch's "stunning certainty" and labels her an "unreliable narrator."

Schulz says admitting wrongness or ignorance is a high-level cognitive ability; we require "internal flexibility and communal permission to backtrack and revise." Can we get schools to value teaching this skill, and skilled educators who can teach this value?

On 60 Minutes last weekend, Steve Kroft asked author-contrarian Christopher Hitchens, famously atheist and facing Stage IV esophageal cancer, whether his "weakened state" might inspire a belief in God. The response: "I ought never say there's nothing that can change my mind. Shall I just say that no evidence has yet been presented that would change my mind. But I like surprises."

In fact, Schulz spends a great deal of time discussing the "surprise, bafflement, fascination, excitement, hilarity, delight" we experience when we err, learn, and grow. Being wrong, she says, reminds us "the world's bag of tricks is not empty." What a great image -- and something we would all do well to remember.

I'm left with a question I hope HuffPost educators and students can help answer: how can we start teaching being wrong?