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The Value of Being Wrong

I get a lot of messages from teachers, parents and grad students asking me for research advice. I love this, both because I enjoy education research and helping people. However, I have noticed that questions are often sent to me in a specific problematic way. People often ask me if I can help them prove or disprove x pedagogy or program. I think this way of looking at a research question is a mistake. Because, we should be looking at the evidence first and making our analysis second. 


Of course this is reflective of human nature. Cognitive dissonance is the idea that we typically accept evidence that reinforces our perspective and reject/forget evidence that goes against our perspective. I think we see this in research all the time. People often interpret research immediately from the perspective of their bias. When a study comes out that reinforces our view point, we tend to automatically look at it as a good study. When a study comes out that challenges our view point, we automatically want to find something wrong with the study. Of course, if we only challenge the designs of studies that challenge our view points it skews our understanding of what the science shows. 


And while, I think this phenomenon does not belong to any specific camp of literacy instruction, I think it is the greatest motivating factor behind those who resist embracing the science of reading. Over the last several years, I have argued pretty staunchly against a “balanced literacy” approach to reading instruction. However, I don’t think any Balanced Literacy scholars wake up in the morning and think how do I stop kids from learning how to read today. Instead, I think at least the vast majority of them have genuinely convinced themselves that their perspective is correct. 


Personally, during my teacher training. I was never taught about fluency instruction, morphology, or phonics. I was taught about the importance of balanced literacy, leveled texts, three cueing, learning styles, inquiry based learning, guided reading, and etc. If that’s all you’re ever taught, of course that is what you believe. Then take it a step further, imagine you spent ten years teaching this way, or researching balanced literacy. How many people are willing to admit that their decade of teaching experience was spent teaching students in an inefficient way, or that their decade of academic research was wasted trying to prove the validity of a disproven concept? To refer to Adam Grant, when we want to persuade others, we become the preacher and when we are presented with an opposing point of view, we become the lawyer and immediately begin to cross examine. 


Of course, education is not the only field with this problem. Research into policing shows that detectives can become fixated on their first suspect and will ignore all evidence to the contrary, indeed many police academies specifically try to train this habit out of their officers. Similarly, airplane companies have noted that employees are quick to try and deflect blame in the incident of a crash, rather than to admit what the real problem was. To adjust for this phenomenon airline companies have adopted policies surrounding how they handle crashes that focus on finding solutions to what went wrong, opposed to blaming the individuals responsible for those errors. I learned about this when I heard about a husband whose wife had died in hospital care due to doctor error. The husband was an airplane pilot, and rather than sue the hospital, he began a campaign to get hospitals to adopt the same policy. 


Admitting when we're wrong, is one of the hardest things we can do. But it is essential for moving science forward, in any field. That is why I have maintained that the biggest threat to science is not ignorance, but ego. It’s really hard to admit when we're wrong, if we choose our hypotheses first, and try to fit the research to our hypothesis second. On the other hand, I wonder if this very normal human bias has been baked right into our education system. I was originally a secondary history/english teacher by trade, not an elementary school teacher. And in secondary social studies classes, we put so much effort into helping students learn how to make a strong academic argument; however, we spend very little time teaching students how to research and fact check their own argument. Maybe, we need to teach students to complete their research first, and thesis second and not the other way around. 


Of course, it’s easy for me to pedantically sit here and ask why other people won’t just accept when they're wrong, so I decided, I would list all of the times I have been wrong about education since becoming a teacher (at least that I am currently aware of):


When I first graduated from teachers college, I was convinced all teaching should be built around discovery and play based learning. Indeed, I was so convinced that I wrote my final paper for teachers college on this. The professor who graded the paper said it read more like a manifesto than an essay: I was wrong.


When I first graduated from teachers college, I thought I needed to include kinaesthetic elements to every lesson. I was wrong. 


I thought increasing student choice was the key to improving writing: I was wrong.


When I first co-started my podcast, in one of the earliest episodes, I said that guided reading was the best way to improve reading: I was wrong. 


When I first co-started my podcast, I thought an approach that balanced whole language and phonics was best: I was wrong.


When I first started researching math instruction, I wanted to prove a procedural focused method was best: I was wrong (an iterative one is). 


When I first heard of repeated reading, I thought that sounds horrible, I am never doing that: I was wrong. 


I personally find very minimal pleasure in poetry, and previously saw no value in teaching it to students: I was wrong. 


When Dr. Garforth first told me about phonemic awareness instruction. I thought that seemed silly, why would students need phonemic awareness instruction and phonics instruction: I was wrong. 


When Dr. Bowers and Dr. Garforth told me about the value of morphology instruction. I thought, I’ve never heard of this before, it sounds super complicated, there’s no way it helps kids: I was wrong. 


Truthfully, I can’t even remember every time I have been wrong about something, since starting this blog, because I have been wrong so many times. I won't apologize for being wrong either. Because, I have learned even more from my mistakes and disproven hypotheses, than I have from the times that I was right. I am constantly re-reading old articles I have written, and either rewriting them, updating my methodology, or deleting them. That is why you will most often see the tag line “last edited” not “written, at the bottom of each of my articles. Of course, admitting when you’re wrong is still hard, for myself included and it is something I hope to get better at over time. I was recently listening to Adam Grant discuss this issue and I thought he had great advice. Don’t let your beliefs become your identity, because they become harder to question if they are. 

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