The importance of being wrong

David Didau

David Didau is a former teacher, author and editor of The Learning Spy

What I love about science is that it’s not an attempt to prove ideas to be right; instead it’s all about testing theories to destruction in the hope of finding them to be wrong. This is a lesson we could all benefit from learning.

Over the past few years, education has been increasingly struggling with the idea that it ought to be more of an evidenced-based profession. Not only should the evidence of what works inform policy making, but also teachers should apply similar thinking to their classroom practice. Teaching cannot hope to be taken seriously as a profession whilst folk wisdom and intuition is given priority over empirical data.

Currently, teachers do what they’ve always done, what they’re told to do and what ‘feels right’. If there’s empirical data that contradicts teachers’ beliefs, they feel free to ignore it and say that whatever they prefer, “works for me”. The problem with this is that there’s no way you can be wrong, and if there’s no way in which you can be wrong, then you have created an unfalsifiable argument.

Imagine you wake to find yourself in a psychiatric ward, deemed by all and sundry to be mad. Any attempt to argue that you are not, in point of fact, mad, is evidence that you are ‘in denial’. Any evidence you cite in support of your sanity is dismissed as an elaborate attempt to buttress your denial. There is no way out of this predicament; no way to demonstrate your sanity that will be accepted by those who have decided they are right because there is no way that they can conceive of being wrong.

Falsifiability is an antidote for the argument that personal experience trumps empirical data. If our intuitions cannot be disproved, then we will never find out if we’re mistaken and we’ll never learn from our mistakes. We can argue that what we like ‘works’ because we like it. And if it’s unsuccessful on verifiable metrics then the metrics are worthless. This is the apotheosis of a closed circle: you can explain away any amount of disconfirming evidence as not fitting your paradigm. You’ve given yourself permission to ignore reality and anyone who suggests you might not be wearing any clothes can safely be dismissed as having the wrong mindset.

The late, great Richard Feynman said, “It doesn’t make a difference how beautiful your guess is. It doesn’t make a difference how smart you are, who made the guess, or what his name is. If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong.” Here’s an acid test for opinions in education and the wider world: if you cannot accept that there are conditions in which you might be wrong, then we should feel free to dismiss your ideas as guff.

David Didau was a teacher for 15 years and is now a freelance trainer, education consultant, conference speaker, provocateur and writer. He writes the award-winning blog The Learning Spy and is also the author of four best-selling books including The Secret of Literacy, What if Everything You Knew About Education Was Wrong?  and What Every Teacher Needs to Know About Psychology.

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