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That’s what learning feels like

None of us like to be wrong. I’ve tested this with many audiences, asking them “how does it feel when you’re wrong?” “Embarrassing”, “humiliating” or simply “bad” are among the most common answers. Stop now and try and think of your own list of words to describe the feeling of being wrong.

These common and universally negative answers are great from a teaching perspective, because they are answers to the wrong question. “Bad” isn’t how you feel when you’re wrong; it’s how it feels when you discover you were wrong! Being wrong feels exactly like being right. This question and this insight come from Kathryn Schulz’s TED Talk, On being wrong. Schulz talks about the “internal sense of rightness” we feel, and the problems that result. I think there’s a puzzle here: we’ve all had the experience of being certain while also being wrong. If the results are “embarrassing”, why do we continue to trust our internal feeling of certainty?

My answer comes from Thinking Fast & Slow. That sense of certainty comes from our System 1, the fast, intuitive, pattern recognition part of our brain. We operate most of our lives listening to System 1. It is what allows us to brush our teeth, cross a street, navigate our way through a dinner party. It is the first filter for everything we see and hear. It is how we make sense of the world. We trust our sense of certainty because System 1 is the origin of most of our impulses and actions. If we couldn’t trust System 1, if we had to double check everything with the slow expensive analytical System 2, we would be paralyzed. So we need our System 1 and we need the sense of certainty it provides. We also need to be aware it can lead us astray.

When our sense of being right guides us we are acting from a Model I / Unilateral Control mindset. The result of a Unilateral Control mindset is less information, reduced trust and fewer opportunities to learn. And we all like to learn right? I now ask my audiences this question and I get universal nods. We all like to learn. “No you don’t”, I reply. “You just told me that the feeling of becoming aware you were wrong feels bad! Well guess what? That’s what learning feels like.” That’s my recent ah-ha moment: that we claim we like to learn, but when it actually comes to learning, to correcting a wrong belief with a right one, we don’t like it.

I find this discrepancy very interesting, very revealing. My theory is that when we imagine learning we are thinking of writing on a blank slate. It is about learning facts where before there were none. That is a good feeling, we get a little chemical kick from our brain when that happens. We don’t imagine correcting our mistaken beliefs when we think of learning, and that’s a real shame, that should change. By all rights we should value that kind of learning even more than learning new facts: “It isn’t what we don’t know that gives us trouble, it’s what we know that ain’t so.” (Will Rogers)

I think the problem is that we are primates. To primates, from an evolutionary psychology standpoint, status is everything. Status is the primary determinant of reproductive success. Losing status can be the same as a reproductive, evolutionary death sentence. In our modern knowledge economy, chest thumping is the assertion that we are right, and winning the fight is proving the other person wrong. That’s how we put them in their place (in the status hierarchy). This means our instinctive reaction to becoming less wrong tends to be negative. The loss of status feels too high a price to pay for learning. Even trying to help someone else become less wrong is understood as a risky prospect. We don’t want them to lose face, we don’t want them to get angry with us for correcting them. Thus the habits of Unilateral Control, protecting both ourselves and others, are reinforced.

All of this explains why developing habits for learning, developing Model II / Mutual Learning habits, requires a lot of practice. We are fighting decades of acculturation on top of millions of years of evolution. To win this fight we need to be committed to what we are fighting for. We need to care more about learning than being right. We’ve got to care about making the most informed choice possible. When I can remember to hold these values in mind it becomes easier to act differently. I can go seek out those people who are most likely to disagree with me, who are most likely to teach me something. I can deliberately share my chain of reasoning and invite others to poke holes in it. With practice, lots of practice, I can come to see the person who corrects me as more friend than rival, and to feel the correction as the victory of joint learning rather than an individual moment of shame.

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