Sunday, February 8, 2015

Paul Hai: Admonition or Aspiration?

Sunset over PolpisWe generally want to know the answer; it’s instilled in us from our earliest educational experiences: give the correct answer and gain the approbation of your teacher, sometimes your classmates, and through good performance on your report card, your parents. That process encourages some of us to embrace being the teacher’s pet while others of us shy away from the potential embarrassment of being publicly wrong.

More significantly, and generally, that process creates individuals reluctant to explore potential answers and explanations when presented with a question. Well after our school-age years we have a continued unease or fear of being wrong in front of others, be them colleagues, friends or family. No one likes to be wrong, it can be supremely uncomfortable, especially in front of those we respect and admire.

And yet, being wrong is the foundation of the learning process: to hold an idea and have it informed by new information and experience, advancing our understanding and knowledge.

Nonetheless, as the saying goes, we’d rather keep quiet and let others think us a fool, than open our mouths and prove them correct. Early in my life another saying became familiar, used as a mechanism, or euphemism, for saying ‘I was wrong’: “Well, you learn something new every day.” Delivered generally with a gentle note of resignation, this phrase is a tidy way of saying “I didn’t know that” without having to say “I didn’t know that.” More recently (time is relative) that sentiment has been updated to “Who knew?

Embracing being wrong is challenging however, learning to be wrong, and more importantly acknowledging being wrong, is critical to our personal growth. As a society we seem to denigrate the concept our ideas can and should evolve through the course of our life. And yet, we consider “life experience” a valuable trait. How are we expected to gain life experience if we’re not encouraged from the earliest ages that it is ok to be wrong, valuable to continue challenging what we already know, and explore openly what we do not? (Attention: politicians).

As an educator, I see this literally every day: in any given group a few students answer or explore the majority of the questions while the majority of others remain quiet. That is until you engage the reluctant participants directly. Being wrong in front of your peers is territory students, of any age, are wary of, and the best protection is to keep quiet.

Interestingly, this fear of being wrong works on both sides of the educational dynamic. When you are in front of a group the implicit expectation is that you know all the answers. As I tell anyone who works with me one of the most valuable tool of being a good educator is to embrace being able to say “I don’t know” as an answer, and to use the partner phrase, “Let’s find out” as the follow-up.

Several years ago while leading a group new information was shared that changed my understanding of a particular subject. My inner dialogue slipped and I said out loud “learn something new every day…” by way of acknowledging I was wrong.

And it struck me, what if we turned that phrase around? What if it were a goal instead of an excuse? And why stop at “something”, instead of “some things”?

And since then “Learn Something New Every Day” has been a guiding principle. As a “naturalist-in-training” for life I am fortunate to be in a profession where daily education – of the teacher and the taught – is a prerequisite (and a perquisite). And I am supremely fortunate to work here in the Adirondacks, a scientific, ecological, cultural, and historical environment where there is so much to learn. Thankfully, though not always more comfortable than when I was a kid, I’ve learned to embrace the joy of learning something new everyday.


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Paul B. Hai is Program Coordinator for the Northern Forest Institute for Conservation Education and Leadership Training of the State University of New York, College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF).

Paul is passionate about creating interdisciplinary programs using natural history, inquiry-based activities and outdoor experiences as the foundations for teaching the process of science, exploring the Adirondack experience, and for getting children outside. This commitment to using informal science education as a vehicle for reconnecting children to nature is a key programmatic theme of programming at ESF’s Adirondack Interpretive Center.


6 Responses

  1. Chris says:

    “Don’t judge a person by theur answers, but by the quality of their questions”

  2. Mark Hanson says:

    Thanks for your article. I wish the Monks at St. Benedict’s Prep. Newark, N.J., thought that way instead of cracking my noggin when I gave the wrong answer. But giving the wrong answer never bothered me because I was then given the right answer and I learned something new. I’m 68 yoa now and continue to give the wrong answers and, in doing so, I learn something new everyday.
    Ain’t life great?
    Gardez la Foi et Restez Fort,

  3. Hawthorn says:

    Unfortunately, there are many people who just believe in a lot of nonsense and refuse to examine facts, and they are proud of their beliefs and look down on those of us who are willing to question, think, and evolve our own beliefs based on evidence. In the end I believe ignorance will lose, but in the end we are all dead too.

  4. K. Reinhardt says:

    During my confused-adolescent years, a very helpful minister taught me that there are four phrases in life that should roll of your tongue, and if any one of them was hard for you to say, then you needed to pay attention to that, and work on making that phrase easy to say. They are (in no particular order): Thank you; I’m sorry; I love you; and I was wrong.

    I’ve gotten very experienced at saying, “I was wrong,” and often pair it with “And you are right,” which continues to surprise recipients.

  5. Wally Elton says:

    As one of those who was among the quiet ones, I feel I must offer a couple of other possible reasons beyond simply a fear of being wrong:
    1. Being incredibly shy. I just could not take having attention focused on me.
    2. Needing more time to formulate thoughts. Discussions in academic settings often seemed to move more quickly than I could assemble my thoughts. By the time I had them together, the discussion had moved on.

  6. Hillel B says:

    Yes, it’s hard to accept, but failure is the greatest teacher.