Shedding Our Certainty

Recently,  I read the New York Times bestseller, The Subtle Art of Not Giving… A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life, written by Mark Manson. In it, he points to studies that show the human brain was designed for efficiency, not accuracy. We rarely remember events accurately; we measure new information against values and conclusions we have already drawn. Thus, we end up being wrong about things more often than not. His conclusion is that we should trust ourselves less, be open to the fact that our minds and hearts are often unreliable, and that we need to challenge our beliefs and assumptions. In this way, we free ourselves to learn and grow. 

I can be a skeptic, so I searched for evidence of Manson’s thesis. I found an article, “Why Facts Don’t Change our Minds,” in the February 27, 2017 edition of The New Yorker, written by Elizabeth Kolbert. She cites recent studies, that I also reviewed, on brain research that shows the limitation on human reasoning, the perseverance of impressions we’ve already made, and confirmation bias, our tendency to embrace information that supports our beliefs even when there is empirical or analytical evidence to the contrary. 

In many circumstances, science corrects our faulty reasoning. As The New Yorker article points out, “In a well-run laboratory, there’s no room for my side bias; the results have to be reproducible in other laboratories, by researchers who have no motive to confirm them. And this, it could be argued, is why the system has proved so successful. At any given moment, a field may be dominated by squabbles, but, in the end, the methodology prevails. Science moves forward, even as we remain stuck in place.”

Even science, however, has its limits.  Research improves, techniques become more sophisticated, and yesterday’s truths become today’s falsehoods.  We routinely see this in the science of nutrition and medicine. Most recently, I read new research about the impact of social media on mental health and the newer research is challenging older research on this topic. Even with good data, we remain adept at discounting accurate information if it contradicts our beliefs or biases, and what we “feel” to be true.  

In the context of education, this helps explain why it is so hard for meaningful change to take place in American schools.That is why we must constantly challenge ourselves to look for meta-research to support our objectives when  available, and sometimes, go by the collective wisdom of the professional leaders in the field along with our own experiences. In a world flooded with information, it is increasingly difficult to discern good research and information from faulty, making it easier to allow our biases to unduly influence our thinking.  We need to look no further than to observe what is going on in our nation’s politics today for validation of how our biases influence our thinking.  

At Schechter, we will be examining many of our educational practices in the coming months and years. How will we manage our own confirmation biases? Let’s take the example of homework, which I wrote about last week.  There is available meta-analysis of many studies conducted over decades that empirically prove that there is no substantial value to homework in the early elementary grades. For many parents, however, the confirmation bias goes something like this: “I had homework growing up in elementary school, I did well in school, went to college, and got a good job. Therefore homework is good.”  The fact remains that there is no evidence that correlates homework to success at school. On the contrary, there is evidence of the opposite in the elementary years.  

On the social-emotional front, there is also evidence that coming to a child’s rescue when certain situations arise does more harm than good. We need to raise children who are resilient; who advocate for themselves, and who sometimes fail forward –  where real learning begins by owning responsibility and learning from mistakes.

When we face a parent who is reactionary, concerned with being “right” (or righteous) rather than being open to a usually more complex and accurate reality, it is, sadly, the child who loses. One of Manson’s pieces of wisdom is that nobody is “entitled” and these negative experiences teach entitlement – not responsibility.  

Manson suggests that we need to shed our certainty of seemingly knowing what is right or accurate, in order to open ourselves up to other possibilities, possibilities that may be more accurate, more productive, and more reality-based. It is also the gateway to truly freeing ourselves to act, fail, and ultimately, grow as human beings.

This is a humbling, human, and, I might add, Jewish approach to living. I am working at it. Are you?


  • Ira J. Zaretsky - November 7, 2019

    Thought-provoking words again from you. I am glad you are boldly and fearlessly taking on established, but possibly outdated thinking and practice in education for the sake of improvement in children’s (and parents and teachers?) well-being, growth, and childhood, which we all know goes by in a flash. Thank you.

  • Menorah Rotenberg - November 7, 2019

    This reminds me of an old question that is asked of the texts in the Bible & Talmud: is this exegesis or eisegisis? The former is what we think the text is saying plainly, whereas the latter is finding a verse in the Bible that proves the point we want to make.
    It has a long running and often toxic history once Chiristian theology set out to use “prroftexts” in the Bible & Talmud against Jews.
    And of course it is in the news again eg.2 sides argueing the true meaning of Jihad. Is it to forcibly make infidels believe or is to use an energetic appeal for peace & tolerance.
    In the end–regarding homework the question in my mind is what is it being used for? Eg,there would be different finding even within one class. It might be to re-inforce what has been learned in class. Or it might turn out to be something that the child has not been able to learn in class & parents struggle to help their children figure out a math problem that they themselves are having trouble with–the child returns and hopes that the teacher will help them learn what they couldn’t the day before in class.

    Menorah Rotenberg is the grandparent of Sidonia,Celan, Leket & Peret and a founder of SSDS in Bergen County when her children Josiah, Ethan, & Elizabeth were “pioneer” students then.


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