What Do You Know?

When my kids were learning to talk, they would often make up words to overcome shortcomings in their vocabularies. They knew, for example, that baby dogs were called “puppies.” But since they didn’t yet know “foal,” a baby horse was called a “horse puppy.” Similarly, when my wife needed an oil change, she would go to the “car doctor.” It didn’t bother them that no one else used these terms. They described the places and things that they needed to using the words they had. Looking back on it, it reminds me of Randall Munroe’s  Up Goer Five, in which the XKCD author explains how the Saturn V rocket worked, using only the 1000 most-used words in the English language.

Cognitively, the children were taking new ideas (there’s a place where we go to get the car fixed) and attaching it to what they already know (when I get sick, I go to the doctor). Later, they refined their understanding. Doctors are only for things that are alive. Cars are not alive. A car doctor is called a mechanic. Each of these pieces of information allowed them to augment their understanding. The result was learning.

In order to develop understanding, we have to find ways to connect new information to things we already know. For example, let’s say that I know that high blood pressure can increase my risk of developing diabetes. My doctor tells me that sodium intake affects blood pressure. So I can reasonably conclude that reducing my salt intake can lower my risk of developing diabetes. Maybe I reduce the amount of salt in my diet, and my blood pressure does go down. So I’ve instilled a belief now. I’m healthier because I’ve made that one dietary change, and I’m less likely to develop diabetes.

But now what happens when I encounter contrary evidence? Maybe someone tweets a link to a news story saying that the benefits of reducing salt are overstated. Or maybe there’s a doctor who writes an article about how reducing sodium tends to increase fat and sugar, which cause more harm than the sodium. Or I see a Facebook post about the restorative power of sea salt.

If my belief in the link between sodium and diabetes is strong enough, I will just reject this new information. There’s no way to fit it into my existing understanding. These people must be crazy. I start questioning their credibility. I look for ulterior motives. I start trying to find flaws in their research or reasoning.

If I’m already convinced that sodium and diabetes are linked, then I embrace evidence that supports that belief, and reject evidence the contradicts that belief. In order to change my mind, you have to find a way to attach new information to my existing understanding that doesn’t contradict everything I already know. Maybe you could point out that most people who have diabetes also have high blood pressure, but that millions of people with high blood pressure don’t develop diabetes. As it turns out, diabetes may be a contributing factor to high blood pressure, not the other way around. Or maybe you can find other examples where correlation does not imply causation, and plant a seed to restructure my understanding of diabetes and blood pressure.

But ultimately, you’re not going to be able to convince me that everything I know is wrong. That would require me to admit that I’m a fool, and I’m not willing to do that. But on the other side of the coin, I have to be aware that the lens through which I see the world is shaped by my experiences, my beliefs, and the understanding that I have built. And because my lens is different from your lens, our views of truth and belief and reality will necessarily be different.

Just knowing that, though, gives us hope. Recognizing that we have different perspectives, and that I might only be right 90% of the time instead of 100% of the time, means that there’s now room in my lens for contrary ideas.

When I was a boy, world was better spot
What was so was so, what was not was not
Now, I am a man, world have changed a lot
Some things nearly so, others nearly not

There are times I almost think
I am not sure of what I absolutely know
Very often find confusion
In conclusion, I concluded long ago

In my head are many facts
That, as a student, I have studied to procure
In my head are many facts
Of which I wish I was more certain, I was sure
Is a puzzlement

 

Image Credit: Knowledge Sharing by Ansonlobo on Wikimedia Commons
Lyrics Credit: A Puzzlement, by Oscar Hammerstein II

I should point out, by the way, that as far as I know, high blood pressure does not cause diabetes. Also, in my own experience, reducing sodium does not cause a decrease in blood pressure. Your mileage may vary.

Civil Conversations

Daryl Davis is a piano player. In 1983, he was playing country and western music in a bar in Virginia. A patron came up to him and remarked that it was the first time he had ever heard a black man play piano as well as Jerry Lee Lewis. Davis explained that Lewis had learned to play from black boogie woogie and blues piano players. The man was unconvinced. Davis explained that Jerry Lee was a friend of his, and the two had discussed his influences many times.

5159469189_c370510ed4_zThe two struck up a conversation, and the man admitted that he was a member of the KKK. Eventually, Davis met with several high-ranking klan members, and even befriended some of them. He found that many klansmen had strong, deep-seeded misconceptions about black people. By forging respectful relationships with them, he was able to counter the stereotypes. It’s harder to hate a group when you know and respect someone who is part of that group.

A few years ago, Davis told his story to Nick Van der Kolk on the excellent Love & Radio podcast.  You should invest 40 minutes and go listen to it. It’s a compelling and entertaining and amazing story. But when you’re done, come back. Because there’s more.

A couple weeks ago, Davis returned to Love & Radio. We seem to be in a world where there are more divisions among us than ever before. And he’s an expert at working to bridge those divides. So we should listen to what he has to say. Go listen to that one, too. Or, if you have to, just read my notes. These are Daryl Davis’s ideas, as told to Nick Van der Kolk, listened to by me, and summarized for you. So how do you have a civil conversation with someone you disagree with?

Do your homework. Before going in, know what their position is. Learn as much as you can about their argument, the reasons behind their beliefs. Ideally, you should be able to make their argument as well as you can make your own.

Have a conversation, not a debate. If you have a debate, it’s about convincing the other side that you’re right. It’s argumentative and confrontational , and it’s very unlikely that you’re going to be able to change their mind. Instead, invite them to have a conversation. Go in with the idea that you want to understand why they feel the way they do. Give them a safe space to explain themselves.

Look for common ground. You agree on something. You can find some area where you’re both on the same page. I was discussing the Affordable Care Act with someone a few months ago, and we were on diametrically opposite sides of the issue. Finally, I looked for common ground. “Can we agree,” I asked, “that when someone gets in a car accident and goes to the hospital, we’re not going to refuse to treat them?” He agreed. Great. All we need to do, then, is figure out how to pay for it. By finding some common ground, you start to build a connection. The more you do that, the less important the differences become.

Talking is not fighting. When you’re talking, you’re not fighting. You might become animated. There might be some yelling or fists pounding on the table. But there’s no violence. The violence doesn’t start until the talking stops. As long as you keep talking, you’re okay.

Be patient. You’re not going to convert someone overnight. Whatever the issue is, there are roots underneath it. You’re not going to spend an hour discussing abortion or immigration or social programs and convince them to change their mind. But maybe you can give them one thing that they’ll think about later. Give them one little reason to just move their position an inch. Be pro-active. Talk to people who disagree with you. Learn from them, and give them the opportunity to learn from you.

Avoid condescension. Don’t be insulting. You will hear opinions that you don’t like. Everyone is entitled to their opinions, and remember that you’re giving them a safe space to express them. But everyone is not entitled to their own facts. When they say something that is untrue, call them on it. Ask for evidence of their claim. Or, if you have evidence that counters their point, share it. Correct the facts, but don’t be mean about it.

I think maybe it’s time to venture out of our bubbles and echo chambers once in a while to try to have some real conversations. I’ll close my HuffPo and Mother Jones browser tabs for a little while. Maybe you can stop listening to Breitbart and Fox News for a couple hours. And we can look for common ground.

Photo credit: Martha Soukup on Flickr.

Focused Presence

About a week ago, we were having a discussion on Slack about the upcoming state educational technology conference. I’m sitting this year out. A couple members of my personal learning network weren’t happy. The conference isn’t necessarily about learning. It’s more about bringing technology to education than focusing on student-centered learning enhanced and supported by technology. Jeremy said that’s not the point. The conference is about networking. It’s about connecting to your colleagues from around the state, hearing about the success and challenges we’re having, and working together to identify innovative strategies and best practices moving forward. He didn’t exactly put it like that, but I think that’s what he meant.

“Why do we have to be in the same place to network?” I asked. The conversation turned to technology. “Nobody has come close to a digital equivalent of being in the same room,” Jeremy offered. Ryan suggested that the Cisco digital presence technology might be close. I disagreed.

20170127_0902441-1Technology isn’t the problem. You can attend conferences remotely. You can watch webinars all day, and there are more than enough Powerpoint slides on the Internet to put everyone to sleep. We can connect in video conferences for face to face conversations. We can use online tools of various kinds to engage in both public and private conversations, both in real time and asynchronously. We have formal spaces where everyone acts like a professional, and less formal ones where we’re a bit more relaxed. There aren’t many gaps in technology’s ability to replicate all of the kinds of interactions we have at a professional conference.

And yet, here I am at Educon. I missed work for two days and drove 500 miles to get here. I brought five people from my district because I think it’s important for them to engage in these conversations. It’s expensive and time consuming and totally worth it.

We could do this online. All of the sessions are streamed live, and this crowd is more than casually connected. I could stay home and still interact with the people in the room in real time. The technology is there to make it happen.

But the last two years, when I didn’t attend Educon, I didn’t participate at all. I didn’t watch the streams. I didn’t follow the Twitter hash tag. I didn’t read the blog post reflections. I checked out.

Sitting in my office, or on my couch, there are a thousand other things to pull me away from the experience. We’re having a network problem. A student’s account got hacked. Someone is impersonating a board member online. There’s always a “drop everything and take care of this” moment. I’m really bad at turning off the world and focusing on one thing, and it’s even more difficult when the one thing really does require your full attention. We don’t respect focused time. I can’t close the door and say, “I’m at a conference now.” The phone will keep ringing. People will keep knocking. They still need important things.

So we’re here. We’re engaged. I’m immersed in the experience, and can hopefully focus my attention on it for the next two days. We will discuss and explore and debate. We’ll talk to people from many different types of schools with many different perspectives. We’ll try to help others by sharing what we’ve learned over the past few years, and we’ll learn much more from others’ experiences. We’ll leave with a sense of hope and optimism that we are on the right track, and we’ll have a better idea of the next steps and how to reach them.

The emergencies have to wait. I have some learning to do.

Photo credit: Scott Detray.