Wednesday, January 15, 2014

On Making Mistakes

It is said we learn more from failure than success.  I agree.  Yet the environment we find ourselves in may be unwelcoming to such failure and then castigates us when we do fail.   Then we self-protect in anticipation of this outcome and refrain from taking risks necessary for learning to avoid looking stupid in public.  Those of us who help shape the environment, supposedly to facilitate the learning of others, need to keep this in mind.  Below are a handful of examples to illustrate related issues.  Then a couple of distinct possible approaches are provided to address the issues.

In her column this morning, Maureen Dowd took on a recent faux pas made by Mayor de Blasio - in public view he ate New York City pizza the way they do in Italy, with a knife and fork, instead of how they do it in NYC, with your hands.  Jon Stewart duly made made fun of the Mayor, as is Stewart's wont.  He is in the business of making mirth.  In response, the Mayor should smile, warmly if wryly.  When you're smiling, the whole world smiles with you.  And that should be that.  Instead, Dowd takes up Stewart's mantle and uses it as a way to pose the question - are de Blasio's creds as an ordinary kind of guy legit or is he really a limo riding liberal?   The error light is lit.....on Dowd.  While the issue may be legitimate to raise, if there is other evidence of above-the-fray behavior, using an ephemeral and entirely unplanned act to illustrate is wrong.  Politicians are human beings.  They will make innocent mistakes.  Who won't?   To expect otherwise is to deny reality.  Dowd may very well be under pressure to write about a politician other than Chris Christie, and preferably a Democrat.  Serious media has an obligation to strive for evenhandedness in its coverage.  But this is not the way to go about it.

Some years ago after a Sloan-C conference at UIC on blended learning, I had an extended email thread with Gary Brown, one of the presenters, where in my initial post I was somewhat critical of his talk, but through several iterations of back and forth we converged to some agreement.  (If you've ever done the drive on I-57 from Chi-town to Champaign you'll agree it is boring, so you need to have something to occupy your mind in the process.  Unfortunately for Gary, I used his talk on that trip.)  If memory serves, one of the things we later agreed on is that students don't like to argue with their peers.  This is a real shame as having such arguments so differing views expressed, learning there is more than one way to see a situation, acknowledging the validity in an alternative opinion that is expressed by a fellow student, having to defend one's own position so it likewise is delivered in a valid way, are all ways a student grows as a thinker.

The self-protection emerges for several different reasons in this case.  First, the perception may be, often with justification, that the person on the other side is not there for the enjoyment of the give and take, but rather to sell something.  When I was a freshman, only 17 at the start, I had multiple instances where I was proselytized in the Union at MIT by others whom I assumed were students (perhaps at some other college in the Boston area) as well.  Out of politeness I didn't walk away at the outset, which is what I would do now.  I hate having the feeling of being sold something.  Listening to someone give a spiel is not at all the same as engaging in a two-sided argument.  Getting propaganda is not learning.  It is being bamboozled.  Resistance, however it is carried out, is an appropriate response.  After a few such encounters one learns to abandon politeness, and in so doing to avoid all such arguments. 

Another possibility that is related to the first one, but I think different enough to warrant its own separate consideration, is for the participants to get heated in the discussion, because one side must win, or so it seems.  They can't agree to disagree.  People who are otherwise friends, but where one is liberal while the other is conservative, may place political arguments out of bounds, just for this reason.  If there is a risk at getting very angry with somebody you like, why exacerbate that?  But in the world in which we live, many things can be viewed from a political angle, at least tangentially.  So this can block discussion altogether or to limit it only to very safe topics - the weather, for example. 

A third limiting factor can be differences in the skill level to make effective argument.  Even if the competition is friendly, the participants will want to win and so be unlikely to pull their punches.  If there are clear differences in skills, this can reduce interest in having the argument on both sides.  The more effective student will feel there is not much to learn from the discussion.  The weaker student may feel the ego being bruised in the process.  Perhaps this can be overcome if they are good friends and both can see how the weaker one will learn from the discussion and as the weaker one improves the stronger will gain for herself. But this also requires a patient outlook.

I'd like to give one more example, this time from Tom Friedman's column today about Ariel Sharon.  Sharon is largely viewed as a hero, inside of Israel and out, a fierce hawk who nonetheless understood that the imperialism implied in a Greater Israel is a path to disaster, not victory.  Nonetheless, Sharon made a catastrophic error along the way.  Friedman writes:

But, in the 1980s, Sharon also embodied a fantasy that gripped Israel — that with enough power the Israelis could rid themselves of the Palestinian threat, that they could have it all: resettling Jews in their biblical heartland in the West Bank, plus settlements in Gaza, docile Palestinians, peace with the neighbors, and good relations with the world. That fantasy drove Sharon to team up in 1982 with the Christian Phalangist leader Bashir Gemayel on a strategic overreach to both oust Yasir Arafat and the P.L.O. from Lebanon and install Gemayel as a pro-Israeli prime minister in Beirut. Ronald Reagan was in power in America; Sadat had just made peace with Israel and taken Egypt off the battlefield. The little Jewish state, Sharon thought, could rearrange the neighborhood.

That Israeli overreach, which I covered from Beirut, ended badly for everyone. Sharon was deemed by a 1983 Israeli commission of inquiry as “indirectly responsible” for the horrible massacre of Palestinian civilians by Phalangists in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. The fiasco in Lebanon (which also gave birth to Hezbollah), followed by two Palestinian intifadas, seemed to impress on Sharon the limits of Israeli power.

Sharon took a big gamble and failed.  The gamble was based on a false world view.  Sometimes we delude ourselves.   The consequence can be quite painful.  One can readily imagine Sharon asking himself afterward, "how could I have been so naive?"  Yet subsequent to this horrible episode he took real and substantial risks, including pulling Israel out of Gaza.  So Sharon provides an example of getting back on the horse after having fallen off.

* * * * *

There seem to be two possible approaches to address self-protection blocking  learning.  One is to toughen up the individual - learn to move on and not create a mountain out of a molehill, following in the example of Sharon.  The other is to create a safe haven within which the individual understands that making mistakes, particularly of the benign sort that de Blasio made, are of no consequence whatsoever.

I can see risks with each approach.  On the toughening approach, there likely will be washouts, who find the regime of training too difficult or too off putting.  I tried to find a non-military example, and came up with this one.  A substantial number of highly recruited  college basketball players end up transferring, or declaring for the draft early, or simply leave school with eligibility remaining.  Washing out may not be the explanation in all cases and sometimes the player might do quite well in the new destination.  But other times the outcomes are tragic and one wonders whether a more nurturing approach initially might have prevented the worst from happening.

The other issue with the toughening is that it might overwrite sensitivity to the needs of others.  One doesn't learn just from arguing with peers.  And sometimes it is more important to lend a hand to a friend and simply be a decent fellow.  I have this issue with my teaching.  There are a handful of students who will take the yard and then some when you offer the proverbial inch.  So you can't go the extra distance with the more reasonable students in need, for having the overall construed as capricious grading or some other violation of campus rules.  Here the inhibition is imposed by external policy.  But it is not hard to envision it resulting from a regime of training.  That is unfortunate.

The development of a safe haven  is my preferred approach as it is what I experienced while living at 509 Wyckoff while an undergraduate at Cornell  (after I transferred from MIT) and I know that was an important part of my own maturation.  The risk here is that people come to like the safe haven so much that they are unwilling to leave and take on the risks entailed in living in less protected environments.  For example, I wrote quite recently that I'm much more comfortable in a university setting than outside it.  A different example, if you watch students on campus, there is a strong tendency for them to cluster with people they already know, or to form new friendships based on religious affiliation, ethnicity, national origin, or some other affinity.  All of this can be interpreted as a desire for being open with others, with the self-protection provided from knowing that the others are like oneself in some important ways.

It would be interesting to do a study on students' views of the classroom and whether they perceive it to be a safe haven.  My guess is that a handful would.  Most would not.  Further, a strong correlation would be shown between that handful and those students who are found to be deep learners.  See my post On the Necessity of Surface Learning, which takes on some of the presentation in Ken Bain's book, What the Best College Students Do.  If this conjecture is even approximately right and if an important part of the mission is to encourage students to become deep learners, then one might reasonably conclude the classroom is not the right place to do this.

Food for thought.  I would like to see experiments with both approaches.  Throw a lot of stuff at the wall and see if anything sticks.  Ultimately we're after something that can be replicated and scaled.  But we're not close to that now.  So let's start small and try things.

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