Being Wrong & Keeping a Surprise Journal

From Slate:

If I could ensure that kids come away from science class with one thing only, it wouldn’t be a set of facts. It would be an attitude—something that the late physicist Richard Feynman called “scientific integrity,” the willingness to bend over backward to examine reasons your pet theories about the world might be wrong.


Teaching that spirit is easier said than done. “The hardest thing is convincing teenagers they can be wrong,” a high school science teacher from Phoenix lamented to me recently in a conversation about scientific integrity. But to be fair, it’s not just teenagers. We’re all captives of one of the most well-established errors in human reasoning, called confirmation bias: our tendency to focus on evidence that confirms our prior expectations. Once our minds alight on a theory, our impulse is to reassure ourselves it’s true, not set out to disprove it.

I loved this article. It contained a practical approach to being wrong: Call it being surprised or a moment of surprise. It’s easier on the ego. And if we teach students to recognize “moments of surprise” we’ll be doing a good job to continue to create a society based less on dogma and more focused on reason and/or empiricism. We can also relish the surprise in seeing the unexpected. Much as I don’t like being wrong, I also have a strong sense of curiosity that enjoys meandering down roads of discovery.

I’m adding a new area to my morning journals. A surprise call-out. I’d like to capture moments this year when my perspective, my views, my own pet theory about the world doesn’t quite match up. Maybe it will help facilitate growth.




New Year Goals: 2015

Because, as always, it’s good to write them down.

Write More

A few months ago my mom brought me my last box of childhood stuff. Sifting through it with my daughters (who found the box fascinating – especially the many sketchpads full of drawings), a few thoughts really stood out.

  1. I really was a fine arts nerd. The box brimmed with poems, stories, theater awards, art projects, and letters.
  2. I started a lot of stories. Rarely finished them.
  3. I clearly had a thing for Rob Liefeld. I mean, I know people generally think of him as a proportionally challenged, but his comic book heroes must have been easy to copy. Liefeldesq superheroes littered all my papers. With a bit of Jim Lee thrown in as well.
  4. I had a sense of earnestness that makes me smile. I’d qualify that statement with “lack of experience”, but by my freshman year of college I had lived and bummed around South America a good bit. So while the stories and poems read pretty fresh, I don’t think them naive.

All of which is a round about way of saying I had a classic adult looking at younger self moment: What the hell happened to that guy?

That’s not to say I’m disappointed in my current stage of life. But in the last decade and a half I definitely became more analytically and, I guess, pragmatic. The fine arts nerd doesn’t come out to play as much. And that sort of bugs me.

So, just like every year, I’m setting a goal to write more. But not just reflective, blogging style posts. I’d like to tackle a story or two. Lord knows I have enough of them rolling around in my head.

Once a Month Dinner with Friends

This is a joint goal with my wife. Life is stupid busy. Work, church, gymnastics, and raising family. Engaging moments with friends – be they new or old – seem to get pushed to the side. Renee and I trend introvert, which is all the more reason we tend to let this slide. This is an area of life that feels unbalanced. Consequently, in 2015 we resolve to find at least one night of the month where we get a babysitter and meet up with other folk.

Walk, Every Day

I actually started this in 2014, but I’m looking to continue it in 2015. I have a job that is not physically demanding. Sometimes I feel the computer screen sucking away any remaining youthful vigor. Throw in the fact that the big 4 zero is just a few years away and I find myself increasingly aware of the need to exercise. Good for the body and good for the spirit. Plus the dogs think I’ve become the best pet owner ever.

I also plan to lift weights and do arm bands. A constant source of pain for me is my upper back, neck, and arms. Hopefully such activities will allow me to keep chipping away at goal number 1.

Model Better Behaviors for my Kids

Specifically, digital behaviors. I find myself taking my phone out at the table, checking news feeds, answering email, and generally putzing on my smartphone when I should be engaged in conversing with my children and wife. I think every parent has moments of guilt over this. I really do want to be more intentional about setting the gizmos aside. My oldest is quickly entering the teen years where, I’m told, any fatherly influence starts to tank. I really want my kids to become happy and caring adults. Part of that means paying attention to people around you.

Embrace (or at least be okay with) Uncertainty

I’m a planner. I like knowing what’s around the corner. I have to consciously calm myself in the face of uncertainty. This past year I got to deal with random, crazy bouts of vertigo (thank you BPPV). This next year I get a new boss. My kids are unpredictable. Life, by its nature, serves curve balls. I’m trying to learn how to handle such pitches with peace. Journaling helps, as does blogging, as does reading the Book of Common Prayer (The Hours). The goal is to fine tune the toolkit.

Those are the top 5 for 2015. They’re not necessarily professional goals (I’ve a good bit of them as well), but they’re important. Here’s hoping 2015 is wonder filled.

Keep an Open Mind

I value – be it in leadership, teaching, or simple day-to-day interactions – sympathy and empathy. Understanding others is a cornerstone of compassion. And, I believe, how we move our society forward bit by slow bit.

This break carried quite a few conversations about race, society, and the police. I attend a church where blacks and whites worship together. I’ve a friend who is a police officer. We all carry opinions, views, and perspectives. But at least we’re having conversations and trying.

Nashville police chief Steve Anderson wrote a Christmas message worth quoting in part. Along with many cities in the US, Nashville has had its fair share of peaceful protests during the past few weeks. Anderson, in response to the “5%” of folk angry at the “thoughts expressed by the demonstrators” wrote a response letter. It’s worth reading in its entirety, but the key paragraphs are here:

While I don’t doubt that you sincerely believe that your thoughts represent the majority of citizens, I would ask you to consider the following before you chisel those thoughts in stone.

As imperfect humans, we have a tendency to limit our association with other persons to those persons who are most like us.  Unfortunately, there is even more of a human tendency to stay within our comfort zone by further narrowing those associations to those persons who share our thoughts and opinions.  By doing this we can avoid giving consideration to thoughts and ideas different than our own.  This would make us uncomfortable.  By considering only the thoughts and ideas we are in agreement with, we stay in our comfort zone.  Our own biases get reinforced and reflected back at us leaving no room for any opinion but our own.  By doing this, we often convince ourselves that the majority of the world shares opinion and that anyone with another opinion is, obviously, wrong.

It is only when we go outside that comfort zone, and subject ourselves to the discomfort of considering thoughts we don’t agree with, that we can make an informed judgment on any matter.  We can still disagree and maintain our opinions, but we can now do so knowing that the issue has been given consideration from all four sides.  Or, if we truly give fair consideration to all points of view, we may need to swallow our pride and amend our original thoughts.

And, it is only by giving consideration to the thoughts of all persons, even those that disagree with us, that we can have an understanding as to what constitutes a majority.

Always consider, there are other shoes to walk.


BFTP: On Questions (2003)

I’m cleaning up my server and stumbled across this old piece from my third year of teaching. Taking a cue from Doug Johnson who regularly posts “Blasts From The Past”, I’m going to post a few of the old writings.

Two short thoughts on this post. First, I really miss teaching. I miss the simple joy of interacting with goofy middle school students and the ability to always, always, come home with 1/2 a dozen stories. Second, I really was a newbie teacher – unpolished, a bit unfocused, but doing a pretty good job at the relational part of teaching. 


On Questions (From 2003)

I adore questions. When students ask me questions I know that I finally reached them, I broke through the budding boundaries of apathy. I started the domino effect of learning! Questions quickly fill the void of despair I feel when a class stares at me with sullen, blank faces. Questions hue towards a natural curiosity that, when watered and fed, blossom into intrinsic seeking and, instead of deadening their minds with passive crap (be it from their peers, TV, whatever), produce fruit. God bless the student who seeks answers.

That’s not to say that all manners of questioning in the classroom are profound and awe inspiring. Indeed, in my 3 years of teaching I’ve heard everything from the mundane to down right bizarre.

I used to teach this student named Reggie. Reggie had an afro the size of a large globe, a face that always bunched up in consternation, and eyes that frequently drifted. Not that Reggie’s mind spoke of an emptiness, but rather, he frequently retreated into its recesses in order to contemplate whatever vagary. Reggie was a goofy genius – a student who frequently made the most astonishing connections.

I once gave a lesson on longitude and latitude. Reggie stared at my crude drawing of the earth and saw a physics problem.

“Hey Mr. V” he shouted (urgent questions rarely come with raised hands). “What would happen if you dug a hole through the earth and then jumped in it?”

Now this question had nothing to do with longitude or latitude, but in Reggie’s mind (and by asking the question out loud, every student in the class) it was a completely valid and important question. A response was required.

As a teacher, I have four options when it comes to questions.

  • Option 1: Give the actual answer. That, of course, assumes I know the answer which, in many cases, I have no clue.
  • Option 2: Simply say that I don’t know. Students usually are frustrated with this response because I, as their teacher, am supposed to know everything.
  • Option 3: Come up with some fantastic, incredible, creative yet totally unbelievable reply that, while subtly relaying the fact that I really don’t have any clue about what I’m talking about, at least is funny. This option is the most preferable when I don’t know the answer (provided that I challenge the students to find a better hypothesis than the one I’ve come up with).
  • Option 4: Pretend that the question wasn’t asked. Option 4 should only be used in certain circumstances which I’ll describe later.

It so happened that I knew the answer to Reggie’s question.

“Assuming that you’d be jumping through a vacuum – or a hole that had no air resistance – and assuming that you wouldn’t burn up when traveling through the intense heat of the Earth’s core, you’d pick up speed until you hit the middle of the Earth and slow down once you passed it until, when you reached the other side, you wouldn’t be moving at all.” I said. “Kind of like a pendulum.”

A true art in teaching comes in the ability to bring whatever random subject the students talk about into the content I want to teach. Sometimes this is really easy, sometimes extremely difficult. In Reggie’s case, I quickly sketched a drawing of the Earth with longitude lines.

“So Reggie, if I jumped in at 48 degrees west longitude and traveled through the center of Earth, where would I end up?” Just like that, we’re back on task.

In a history class, the “I Don’t Know” answers pops up frequently (and not just on the part of students). Frequently this has to do with death. Because so much of history is entertainment, I often describe how historic villains and heroes meet their end. Alexander Hamilton died in a duel. Meriwether Lewis shot himself. Jefferson and Adams perished on the same day. Students remember the morbid and will ask me how other historical characters finished their narratives. To their questions I simply reply that I don’t know but, if they are truly interested, to look it up for themselves.

Still, and especially with some students, I feel moments of mischief creep up. Take William Clark for example. After learning the tragic ending to Lewis, one student wanted to know what happened to Clark.

“Clark came home from his 3 year trip and married his neighbor Eliza May” I told the student. “Together they raised a small nation, 24 boys and one girl, which,” I added to the loud giggling of the class, “is all the more remarkable considering that many childbirths ended in death.”

Now I couldn’t remember exactly how many kids William Clark had. So instead of trying to pass this off as historic truth, I used it as the platform to build an outrageous story, thereby encouraging student curiosity.

“Their 25th child, a boy named Robby, unfortunately was born with only a head.” I continued. Half of the class looked at me with incredulity while the other half pondered if someone could actually be born with only head.

“Being a head sucked for, while Robby got really good at thinking, all he really wanted to do was run around. Now the Clarks raised their children under religious precepts, so one day Robby prayed to God for a torso and arms. Sure enough, the next day he woke up to a torso and arms!”

“Having a torso and arms was great! His sister fashioned him a wheel chair and he was finally able to move about on his own. But then Robby got to thinking, it sure would be nice to have some legs. So he said a prayer, and the next day he had legs.”

“Robby was ecstatic. He ran around the house, climbed trees, and chased chickens. He chased dogs down the streets, his brothers through the farm, and squirrels through the underbrush. In fact, he chased a squirrel through the underbrush, up the side of an embank, onto some railroad tracks, and into the path of train. He ran into the path of a train, got hit, and died.”

At this point the class grew utterly silent. Did I have a point for this morbid story?

“Class, history teaches us lessons. Always. Can anyone tell me the lesson to Robby’s story?”

One bright young girl raised her hand. “Um, to quit while you’re ahead?”


Story telling, a wonderful tool used to take the class with you along the path of learning, doesn’t always work its magic in response to a question. There are those questions a teacher dreads. Questions that, while completely salient, strangle us and blank out our minds.