Learning requires willingness to suffer injury to one's self-esteem

Over recent weeks I have ignored Twitter, it was consuming too much time and I have to focus on writing the PhD. There is a cost involved to doing this, you miss out on some good insights.

Aside: The quality of the insights you gather from twitter are directly correlated with the quality of the people you follow. Listening to this podcast yesterday I heard the following description of the difference between Facebook and Twitter. Facebook is for the people you already know, Twitter is for those you don’t.

This morning I gave in and started up Nambu and have come across the following, very fitting quote

“Every act of conscious learning requires the willingness to suffer an injury to one’s self-esteem. That is why young children, before they are aware of their own self-importance learn so easily; and why older persons, especially if vain or important, cannot learn at all.” — Thomas Szasz, 1973

I plan to use this quote to argue that current approaches within universities – or at least those I’m familiar with – prevent learning.

Source

I came across this quote via a tweet by Gardner Campbell pointing to the first lecture by Michael Wesch. The quote is the lead in to the lecture.

Thomas Szasz is a somewhat controversial figure, so perhaps not the perfect source for a quote. But the quote does capture what I see as a key aspect of learning – and one that I personally struggle with.

Learning means being wrong

Szasz suggests you have to be willing to suffer through injury to your self-esteem to learn. To get it wrong. This connects with many of the other insights, quotes and perspectives on learning that I’ve seen and discussed on the blog. I’m sure there are many more.

Additional support for this idea comes from confirmation bias, the Tolstoy syndrome and pattern entrainment and not to mention the Golden Hammer law and status quo adherence. All summed up nicely by a quote from Tolstoy

The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is laid before him.

In order to learn something new you have to be prepared to think anew, critically examine what you currently take for granted and hold it up to the light of new insights to see if it is found wanting. While learning something new, you will make mistakes. In fact, there are any number of quotes around innovation that posit the importance of failure

If you’re not failing every now and again, it’s a sign you’re not doing anything very innovative. — Woody Allen

or

The essential part of creativity is not being afraid to fail. — Edwin Land

and

Success is on the far side of failure. — Thomas Watson Sr

Fear of failure is embedded in academia

Jon Udell has argued that academia is heavily focused on not being seen to make mistakes. Researchers only release ideas that are fully baked, half-baked ideas are discouraged

As Gardner Campbell observes in this article

For an academic, “failure” is often synonymous with “looking stupid in front of someone.” For many faculty, and maybe for me back in the 1980s, computers mean the possibility of “pulling a Charlie Gordon,” as the narrator poignantly terms it in Daniel Keyes’s Flowers for Algernon.

Fear of failure is made worse by managerialism

For quite some time I have been arguing that teleological approaches to online learning – and I know expand that to broader styles of management – within higher education is ill-suited to the challenge (Jons, Luck, McConachie and Daner, 2005; Jones and Muldoon, 2007). Approaches to leadership and management that are driven by current over-emphasis on efficiency and accountability are based heavily on teleological assumptions and because of the mismatch end up damaging universities.

But worse, at least from the perspective of learning, such approaches to leadership – at least as often practiced – are hugely fearful of failure. They seek to avoid it as much as possible. The SNAFU principle is a humourous explanation of this tendency for authoritarian hierarchies to screw up.

Of course there is also much written in the management and organisational research about this tendency. This post covers a small sample of it and includes the following quote from Argyris and Schon (1978, p116)

In a Model 1 behavioral world, the discovery of uncorrectable errors is a source of personal and organisational vulnerability. The response to vulnerability is unilateral self-protection, which can take several forms. Uncorrectable errors, and the processes that lead to them, can be hidden, disguised, or denied (all of which we call ‘camouflage’); and individuals and groups can protect themselves further by sealing themselves off from blame, should camouflage fail.

References

Jones, D., J. Luck, et al. (2005). The teleological brake on ICTs in open and distance learning. Conference of the Open and Distance Learning Association of Australia’2005, Adelaide.

Jones, D. and N. Muldoon (2007). The teleological reason why ICTs limit choice for university learners and learning. ICT: Providing choices for learners and learning. Proceedings ASCILITE Singapore 2007, Singapore.

4 thoughts on “Learning requires willingness to suffer injury to one's self-esteem

  1. a very nice collection of quotes, some of which have very much left me thinking.

    What you’re saying about people being concerned about being seen to be incorrect is so true. I wonder about he complexities of this online too… I am happy to write about my experiences as a student, and welcome constructive criticism as it helps me learn, but it can be hard to behave in such a way in a professional context because of what your own management expects. *sigh* that sounds so very jaded and negative.

    1. Jaded/negative or is it realistic. Part of the rationale for the post was to point out the reality of this in organisations. Hopefully with the aim of doing something about it, i.e. you can’t do it, if you don’t recognise it. I don’t expect it to have much impact.

      One solution is given by a recent XKCD comic http://xkcd.com/137/

      While it may be difficult and prone to all sorts of risks, can I really expect the organisations I work for to become any better if I don’t adopt/demonstrate the behaviour I want them to adopt?

      Sorry, become more about me….thanks for the comment, got me thinking some more.

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