Thursday, July 28, 2011

Discouraging Self-Confidence?

From the vault on May 6, 2008
Perhaps the epitome of self-confidence, fictional Dr. Gregory House said,
"If you're right and you doubt yourself, it doesn't help anybody."
I read this piece on smart kids who over estimate their intelligence which included, among other things, the following quote:
"I'd like to caution especially my younger readers that you may be very smart, but you should assume that you are making a mistake if you find yourself thinking you are smarter than every scientist in the world put together. A feeling like that is wrong a million times for every time it's even half right."
I'm not sure I agree with this author's tone toward young people. It is hard enough to get smart kids through schools and into the world of science (or any advanced realm) without discouraging them. Although there are clearly times when young people will be wrong, there are other times when they are right.

And I know it is movie-esque to imagine that there is this solution that a student reads about purely as theory and then toils over, confronts barriers of adults who blindly believe in the impossibility of them understanding, and then eventually discover something genius. But there are countless examples of young people today doing just that. Popular online applications like YouTube and Facebook are both products of garage-style ingenuity, for one.

It is a bit precocious (arrogant?) to assume that, as a teenager, you are such a rockstar that you are smarter than everyone else on the planet (and are telling the press about it!). But, it will be true that teachers are wrong - or that students will be more accomplished in a subject than they are. There are textbooks with mistakes and calculations with errors.

In my humble opinion, some kid who wants to spend their spare time calculating the difference between the orders of magnitude of anything should be encouraged to do so. In my limited experience, it seems that even if they are eventually wrong, they will have learned something valuable.

Where is the line between teaching limitations and asking students to stay in line and hampering brilliance? Science may be a team sport, but every sport has rookie all-stars.


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