A Humiliation, er, Teachable Moment

January 17, 2011 at 9:13 am 7 comments

I’ve been taking a piece of advice from Seymour Papert over the last couple weeks (and for the next couple months).  While I was never a student at MIT nor part of any of their Logo programs, I got some time with Seymour when we were both at the all-weekend design meetings for Logo Microworlds, back when I was a graduate student.  (One of my all-time most scary and intellectually challenging dinners was sitting next to Seymour and defending my thesis to him.)  One of his in-passing pieces of advice was that education researchers should regularly learn something new, to continually be reminded of what it’s like to be a learner.

I’m “Baron Elberfeld” in our church’s production of “Sound of Music.”  My wife (“Frau Schmidt”) and daughter (“Brigitta”) are also in the production.  All of the rest of my family have been in plays, and my wife and son have been in many.  This is my first play ever.  Not even in high school was I ever even working on the set.  This is totally new for me.

One of my first observations: I don’t know the severity of my mistakes.  I’m the eager-to-please newbie, and I make mistakes.  Are they “okay” mistakes?  Did I just make a serious faux pas? I make some of each, but I can’t tell at the time.  I figure it out 5, 10, 15 minutes later, judged in terms of later response to me.

Yesterday, we were at rehearsal all day long.  Since I only have two lines and am in only one scene (but have to dance two dances, and sing the final “Goodbye” with all the other party guests), I spent much of the time yesterday trying to help out with the set.  One of the people in charge gave me a task to do, which I worked at diligently.  Someone else came along and thanked me for doing it — it needed doing, and he was worried that nobody was doing it.  I went out to get more supplies.

When I came back, somebody else more senior (everybody is more senior to me) was doing my job.  As I walked up and he saw the supplies in my hand (more of what I’d already been using), he told me, “No, those are completely wrong.  You should never be using those.”  He explained why.  Then he pointed out the tools I was using, and told me how his tools were much more appropriate for the task.  He then turned away from me and went back to work, on the job that had been mine.

I felt humiliated.  I felt like I must have screwed things up, working for over an hour with the wrong supplies and wrong tools.  I strongly suspect that he felt that he reached out to me in a “teachable moment” — he explained to me how I was mistaken, and how his approach was much better.  He probably felt that he did me a favor.  I felt like quitting.  I packed up all the stuff I was using and put it away, then went and sat down until it was time for my scene.

Back when OOPLSA was in Atlanta, in 1997, I got to have lunch with Adele Goldberg.  At that time, she was working on a Smalltalk programming environment to be used in the UK Open University‘s introductory course.  She told me that the greatest benefit of distance education was for supporting working professionals in learning something new.  The issue wasn’t finding time in a day.  It was humiliation.  “You work in a field for 10, 20 years, and you get recognized for your expertise.  Now go into a classroom, and raise your hand to admit that you don’t know something.  It’s really hard!”  On the Internet, nobody can see you blush.

Seymour’s right — it is a good thing to be in these situations, to be reminded of what it’s like for our students. I’m sure that our students may also feel that they’re losing face when met with a “teachable moment.”  It’s a real challenge for us to teach it in a way that avoid humiliation, that allows the student to see the lesson but feel encouraged to keep going, to keep engaged.

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7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Bijan Parsia  |  January 17, 2011 at 12:57 pm

    Avoidance of shame is the current hypothesis for the popularity of clickers in our MSc program (and was a motivation for getting them). Our entire MSc cohort has a clicker and I used them extensively last semester (for the first time). The questions I use them for are fairly banal and rather similar to the thought questions I would ask spontaneously. (Obviously, it’s not so spontaneous, but then again, the question I would ask weren’t so very spontaneous rather than the asking.)

    At one point, since I hated it, I asked them if they liked the clickers or whether I should give it up and move on and the response was overwhelmingly positive. Indeed, participation rates with the clickers is way higher than I can achieve verbally (“Raise your hands!”) Discussion isn’t hugely better and perhaps we’re missing something in not encouraging them to be visibly active. However, I can reliably get, oh, 80% response with the clickers and maybe a generous 7-8% response without (in a 100 person class). (Again, the modalities of response are different.)

    In (philosophy) grad school, we were encouraged to do the “wait”, i.e., to ask a question and wait a *long* time (60-90 seconds) before giving up. Indeed, the discomfort was held to produce better response rate and the tricky bit was having the courage to keep up the silence. Meh. I’m unconvinced.

    I also recall a student siding with Thrasymachus over Socrates claiming that *Socrates* had been the rude one (rememer Thrasym calls Socrates a snot nosed lil punk) because Socrates *refuted* Thrasymachus and it was ruder to *show* that someone was wrong than just about anything else.

    It didn’t matter how nicely you did it. Showing that someone was wrong was wrong and shouldn’t be done.

    Oh how I despaired that day!

  • 3. Alan Kay  |  January 17, 2011 at 2:15 pm

    I wonder if parents could discourage children from learning to walk via conveying intense scorn for the efforts? (Maybe not, maybe the genetic urge is too strong)

    Could we imagine a middle ground where “it’s OK to be wrong as long as we are trying to get it right”?

    Good music teachers do this all the time (and the nature of the subject helps).

    Most of today’s systems, from school to academic to NSF, could learn much if they could tolerate higher “failure” rates on more important topics …



  • 4. Robert Talbert  |  January 18, 2011 at 8:21 am

    I’m a longtime reader and re-tweeter of this blog and an infrequent commenter, but I wanted to say “thank you” for this post. Learning absolutely is important to all of us involved in education, whether as researchers or instructors or some linear combination of the two.

    I’ve shared your experiences lately as I’ve begun to take baby steps toward doing education research. I’m a mathematician by training and “research” for me has always meant “proving theorems”. I’m working on a study to test some hypotheses about a MATLAB course I teach, and when I had to fill out an IRB form I was completely out to sea. I went to one of my colleagues in sociology to help me out and came away feeling about 2 inches tall, not because of any meanness on my colleague’s part but because I realized I have so much to absorb and without humility, I’ll never make it to where I want to go with research. It refreshed my belief that humility is an essential part of education at any level. Your story about being in the play certainly speaks to that as well.

    Thanks again.

  • 5. John "Z-Bo" Zabroski  |  January 19, 2011 at 1:35 pm

    Great advice by Papert.

    Small thought:

    I reject that distance learning should be embraced on allowing us to hide our insecurities.

    I love admitting I don’t know something. What I think most people are afraid of is admitting they don’t know something and demonstrating their unwillingness to change and learn. As we get older, we become more stiff and filled with pride. One of the cultural ethos of the people I hang around is that pride can be our downfall.

    By the way, I get a TON of heat when I say I don’t know something obvious, but it doesn’t bother me. I don’t know it, darn it. Explain it to me or tell me where I can go ot learn it. I’m fearless in this regard, and think Adele’s point on this matter is mistaken. I’m not sure how I can “prove” her wrong, though?

    BTW, loved your anecdote. Reminded me of teaching people how to paint walls. Many people assume it is so easy that any strategy will work, when in fact your strategy affects how streaky you are, how efficient, and how well you can conserve paint and whether you need multiple coats and if your coating is even. Even when you tell this to people, they usually don’t listen, because “painting is easy”. I find this attitude absurd. Ultimately, I don’t criticize them, and spend more time covering up their mistakes when they aren’t watching. That’s the cost of leadership; you are accountable.

  • […] mentioned a while ago that I decided to be part of a play, inspired in part by Seymour Papert’s recommendation to always go learn s…. I have been meaning to report back on some of what I […]

  • […] for the last two weeks and through this weekend. This is my third year doing it, so I’m not quite the novice I was when I first wrote about the experience.  We’re doing “Curtains” which is a show-in-a-show musical — the setting […]


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