What do you know?

Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.”Voltaire[1]

I have found that humans are very curious — an attribute that serves us well, as we seek to learn both skills and content, enabling us to productively interact with the world around us.  However, sometimes our desire to satisfy our curiosity leads us to prematurely conclude that we know something, when in fact we don’t.  The world is becoming increasingly complex,[2] and attempts at simple solutions to our problems might actually cause harm.  Mark Twain may have addressed this when he, perhaps apocryphally, said, “What gets us into trouble is not what we don’t know. It’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.”[3]

If the premise is that life holds complicated uncertainty for everyone, what is the recommendation for how we should structure teaching and learning?  I don’t know.  However, I would guide students to understand that, in the ‘real world’, there are some assignments that won’t produce straightforward conclusions or answers.  Instead, after learning something, it may be a good habit to say to one’s self, ‘This is what I believe for now’.  Understanding that you can change your mind when you get new information is a ‘superpower’.  This power can be fostered by quantitative methods such as Bayesian statistics[4] or qualitative methods such as journaling.  These are simply ways to keep an open mind.  Leaving open the possibility for additional nuanced learning will be to your benefit, since it will enable you to be more effective and make fewer mistakes regardless of what priorities you choose to follow.

Parting question:

  • What is something that you once believed was simple, but after further study realized that it was either more complicated or complex than you initially believed?

 

Written by Dr. Ivory Hills

 

[1] This quote is attributed to Voltaire; however, over the years both the original words in French and the various translations have rendered the exact quote somewhat uncertain. https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Talk:Voltaire#Doubt_is_not_a_pleasant_condition,_but_certainty_is_absurd (accessed December 2, 2020).

[2] Complicated is not synonymous with complex.  To learn more about complexity, start here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Complexity (accessed December 2, 2020).

[3] It seems that this pithy bit of wisdom has also been attributed to Will Rogers, Satchel Paige, and others. https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Talk:Mark_Twain (accessed December 2, 2020).

[4] Bayesian statistics is a mathematical method for updating prior beliefs as you learn new information.  For more, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bayesian_statistics (accessed December 3, 2020)

 

 

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