"No one enjoys being wrong, but I do enjoy having been wrong because it means I am now less wrong than I was before."
Grant, A. (2021). Think again: The power of knowing what you don’t know. Viking, Penguin Random House; New York, New York.
THE MEAT (The Main Idea)
As we launch a new school year, it's only fitting that we turn our attention to the very essence of education: learning. The promise of fresh beginnings, unopened boxes of crayons, and stacks of pristine Post-it notes fills the air. But amidst this anticipation, there's an often-overlooked concept that lies at the heart of learning: "unlearning."
Early in my leadership journey, I came to two crucial realizations:
(1) I understood that despite my expertise and experience, I didn't have all the answers.
(2) Even when I believed I had found an answer, it didn't automatically make it the right one.
Unlearning, as it turns out, is more challenging than one might think. Once you've grasped a concept or developed a perspective, it can become deeply ingrained in your thinking. It's your foundation, your reference point. However, as educators, leaders, and lifelong learners, we must recognize that knowledge evolves, and what we once held as undeniable truth may evolve or even become obsolete.
The essence of unlearning lies in intellectual humility – the willingness to entertain alternative viewpoints without hastily abandoning our original thoughts. It's a delicate balance between not being stubbornly stuck in the mud and yet not becoming wishy-washy, swayed by every passing idea.
This takes us to our quote. Adam Grant and the renowned 85-year-old Israeli-American author, psychologist, and economist, Daniel Kahneman were discussing being wrong. This dialogue, captured in Grant's book, Think Again, encapsulates Kahneman's wisdom: "No one enjoys being wrong, but I do enjoy having been wrong because it means I am now less wrong than I was before." If a Nobel laureate, celebrated for his groundbreaking work on judgment, decision-making, and behavioral economics, can find joy in the process of being wrong, it challenges us all to reconsider our approach to learning and growth.
THE CHEESE (Added Depth)
My thinking tends to be linear. I find comfort in lists, charts, and diagrams, a journey from point A to Z. I see a process in everything, and unlearning, too, has its own process:
Bring in New knowledge -> Examine the facts -> Discard old thinking -> and Connect the old thinking to the new thinking = Unlearning.
But, learning itself is not a linear journey; it's cyclical, much like the changing of seasons.
Spring - New Knowledge: Think of the first phases of "New Knowledge" as Spring. It represents the season of renewal and growth. Just as the earth awakens in spring, new knowledge arrives, akin to fresh blooms emerging from the ground. This influx of knowledge ignites our curiosity, inspiring us to explore new ideas and pathways.
Summer - Examining the Facts: As we transition into Summer, it's akin to "Examining the Facts." Summer is when the sun shines brightly, revealing every detail. This season symbolizes our critical examination of facts. Like the sun exposing the nuances of the landscape, we scrutinize our understanding, question assumptions, and challenge existing beliefs under the intellectual sunlight.
Fall - Discarding Old Thinking: In the fall, leaves change color and gracefully let go, making way for new growth in the future. This parallels the stage where we discard old thinking. Like shedding leaves, we release ideas that no longer serve us, recognizing that this shedding is a natural part of growth. It's the season of humility, acknowledging the past and preparing for the future.
Winter - Connecting Old and New Thinking: Finally, Winter brings stillness and reflection. It's a time when the old and new coexist in quiet harmony. Similarly, as we enter the winter of our unlearning process, we aim to connect the old thinking to the new. We seek the wisdom of the past to enrich our evolving beliefs. It's a season of integration, where our intellectual landscape is enriched by the depth of our experiences.
Just as nature's seasons continue to cycle, our journey of unlearning is an ongoing cycle, fostering intellectual flexibility, curiosity, and adaptability. Much like the changing seasons, unlearning isn't about erasing the past but about embracing it as an integral part of our growth, creating a rich and enduring foundation for future learning.
THE OLIVES (A Surprising Element)
A powerful example that reinforces the essence of our quote and challenges our perspective. In 1846, a prominent scientist named Ignaz Semmelweis faced an unexpected crisis at the Vienna General Hospital. The hospital had two maternity clinics, one staffed by doctors and the other by midwives. What transpired in this setting would become a profound lesson in the value of unlearning.
During Semmelweis's time, it was common practice for doctors to move directly from performing autopsies to delivering babies without washing their hands. Although this is shocking to us today, hand-washing was not common practice back then. This lack of hygiene unknowingly contributed to a high mortality rate among new mothers due to a condition known as "childbed fever."
Semmelweis, however, dared to question the status quo. He embarked on a mission to examine the facts, scrutinizing the practices of both clinics. What he discovered was startling: the clinic staffed by doctors had a significantly higher mortality rate than the one run by midwives. His critical examination of facts led to a revolutionary conclusion: doctors' contaminated hands were transmitting infections. In the fall of his own preconceptions, he discarded the old thinking that doctors were infallible and that traditional practices were unchallengeable. But Semmelweis didn't stop there. He entered a season of connection, implementing hand-washing with a chlorinated lime solution. This simple act of integrating new knowledge into the existing medical practice led to a dramatic reduction in childbed fever cases and saved countless lives.
Now, pause for a moment and consider this: What if Semmelweis had succumbed to the belief that being wrong was something to be avoided at all costs? What if he had resisted the intellectual flexibility needed to challenge established doctors and humble their thinking?
So, as we reflect on the quote by Daniel Kahneman, and the wisdom it imparts – "No one enjoys being wrong, but I do enjoy having been wrong because it means I am now less wrong than I was before" – let's remember that unlearning isn't just a concept; it's a cycle. It's the power to challenge our own assumptions, embrace the joy of progress, and turn moments of being wrong into stepping stones toward being just a little more right.