The Gift of Being Wrong

Some of us found our way to L&D because we were happiest in the classroom, while others are here to challenge a learning environment that may not have worked for us. Whether we were the class anarchist or the teacher’s pet, we’re all pretty confident of what we know about learning.

And that’s where we’re wrong—or need to be. No matter how much experience we have, the fact that our careers are focused on learning makes us unlike the average learner we serve. As empathetic as we might be—and learning folks are a nice bunch—we’re simply not a representative sample.

I’ve written previously in support of design thinking methodology, particularly the opportunity it creates to meet learners who are nothing like us. The paradox, of course, is that our shared humanity makes connection inevitable. Even if we can’t imagine what it’s like to perform a certain job, we can absolutely relate to the joy of succeeding at a challenge.

But the practice I’m advocating for now is even more personal—and it precedes sitting together at the interview table. My challenge to you for 2020 is to learn a skill for which you have no immediate application, a skill you can’t translate into profit or add to your LinkedIn profile: a skill that, in short, has nothing to do with you. Revel in being wrong and learn from your inevitable mistakes.

Mine is the Georgian language. I visited the country in late 2018 and spoke two words at the time, hello and thank you, both of which I pronounced wrong. When I returned, I found an online tutor willing to take on a complete beginner. I struggled—and still struggle—to pronounce clusters of five consonants, some of which include gutturals and an epiglottal stop. I make the mistakes children do when they’re just learning to read and speak: I regularly mistake K for V and P for H. I learn one grammatical rule at a time, and I apply it to everything I say. It takes me weeks to memorize a single lesson’s worth of vocabulary because I don’t know any root words. I don’t know when, if ever, I’ll be able to have a spontaneous conversation. Almost no one besides my tutor will ever know when I improve.

So, what’s the point? Well, I was moved by the country, its people, and its history; I felt I wanted to commit something to it besides mere tourism. Georgia has the oldest winemaking tradition in the world and one of the oldest spoken languages and literary traditions. Georgian is one of the few remaining on the Kartvelian branch of the language tree. The alphabet, mkhedruli, is labyrinthine and lovely, and words are actually spelled phonetically. The Georgian people have survived invasions from all sides, and the remaining fortresses and hideouts are surprisingly serene. You can hear the triumph in the language: the word for “hello” is literally “victory.”

Above all, Georgian has nothing to do with me. It’s the first language I have undertaken without a concrete objective: to move abroad, to speak with family, to travel. The lesson that the self is not the center of the world is a fundamental one we have to master to grow up, but it’s always good to be reminded. It’s easy to get comfortable in our chosen silo and forget what it’s like to be new at something.

Not that there aren’t applications to my own silo—when L&D folks learn, we have the built-in advantage of discovering new instructional techniques—and borrowing them. My Georgian lessons give me fresh ideas about how to teach someone a skill from scratch. My tutor builds in a lot of small wins with related verbs, cases, and phrases I can apply as a set. When I need remediation, which is often, she prompts me with the rule so that I have another chance to answer correctly. I’m going to say more wrong than right for a while, but I’m also at the stage where any growth feels like a lot.

Language isn’t everyone’s area of interest, I know. But the experience of being humbled is worth pursuing, whether for a few hours or over the course of a lifetime. Along with the Georgian language, I’m learning about what it feels like not to be able to be my full self because I can’t say more than my name and some basic phrases. I’m also learning a bit about what it’s like to acquire literacy as an adult. It’s not a perfect laboratory, but it’s given me a new appreciation for the enormity of the task.

Most of all, being a novice reminds us never to take a deficit view of our learners. We’re all competent at something, somewhere. Take us out of the fragile, specific milieu where our competencies are valued, and we are all vulnerable. We speak about this vulnerability when we worry about the future of work and our own obsolescence. We’re all afraid of being replaced: to remain viable, we have to fight the complacency that comes with competence. In forcing ourselves to be novices, we become adaptable.

We talk about not being afraid to fail; or failing forward. Despite these claims, though, we remain captivated by the myth of the brilliant hero who instantly discovers the right path—whether it’s a literal journey or one of product, industry, or personal development. We’re drawn to superstars and instant successes: the story of trial, error, and iteration takes too long to tell—and has too many characters to name.

We can hope, even strive, for stardom and discovery. But, in the meantime, as we implement our New Year’s resolutions or bucket lists for the new decade, let’s challenge ourselves to confront what we don’t know. Let’s do what we ask of our learners and embrace the discomfort of being a novice—and accept evaluation, failure, and remediation with grace. In short, let’s give ourselves the gift of being wrong.

About the Authors

Tiffany Vojnovski
The idea that school could be different first came to me—as did most risky ideas—through fiction, specifically Notes on the Hauter Experiment, a futuristic novel set in an automated boarding school. Screens replaced teachers, and flashing lights cued students to move to their next class. Those who disobeyed were punished with grating alarms and foul odors. Whether the author, Bernice Grohskopf, had a background in instructional design or simply excelled at reimagining the boarding-school bildungsroman, one thing was clear: school was ripe for an LX intervention. I didn’t revisit the idea until I joined the New York City Teaching Fellows program; but this time, I was the teacher instead of the reader. Via a fast track to certification, I was charged with teaching in one of the highest-needs schools in the country. My challenge was to boost students’ achievement by several grade levels while adding rigor and interest to the high-school English curriculum. After a lot of trial, error, and reflection, I learned how to help my students succeed. However, I never felt comfortable enforcing the poorly thought-out procedures and meaningless paperwork our school leadership imposed upon students. I believed in the value of knowledge, and to organizations devoted to learning and exploration. What I wasn’t sure I believed in were the virtues of going through the system in a single “right” way. If anything positive came out of my complicity with the school’s—and district’s—lamentable LX, it was the empathy I developed for my students. If their job was to learn and follow the rules, my job was to make it as easy as possible for them to do so. Any procedure that caused confusion about what to do when they entered class, where to find learning resources, or how to turn in completed work needed to be redesigned. When students arrived in a classroom designed for professional learning, they acted—surprise!—like professional learners. My commitment to LX has been the link between my teaching and instructional design practices. Rather than despair that learners aren’t who we want them to be—more literate, more professional, more successful in whatever way we value—we should design learning tools that make these ends accessible. Learners themselves can teach us how: thanks to the design thinking model, we have a series of steps for engaging learners in empathy interviews and quickly prototyping solutions that might help them. It’s easy to view the learner as a faceless cipher sitting at the other end of an eLearning module. However, once you meet someone face to face, you can’t help but care about their experience. Not every learner is skilled in metacognition or speaks the language of academia, but all learners can tell us, in their own idiom, about the obstacles and fears that trouble them—and the interventions that would improve their lives. Learning is more than a system of rewards, punishments, and behavioral cues meted out by machines. My commitment is to maintain an open mind and to treat every learner as a sympathetic character.

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