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The Value Of Productive Stupidity

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So much of what passes for education today is the way we keep score of perceived academic competency -- students raising their hands in class and receiving recognition for reciting what they already know. As I mentioned in a piece earlier this year for Xconomy's Report on Education, students ought to be encouraged to acknowledge what they don't know and have action-based learning drive their educational journey.

I recently came across an article in Cell Science that gets to the core of this issue. The title -- "The Importance of Stupidity in Scientific Research" -- was reason alone to pique my curiosity. What I didn't expect was to find a powerful insight into student learning in today's highly uncertain world.

Martin A. Schwartz, of the University of Virginia Department of Microbiology, wrote that "we don't do a good enough job of teaching our students how to be productively stupid -- the kind of stupidity inherent in our efforts to push our way into the unknown." Dr. Schwartz is referring to scientific education when he says "the more comfortable we become with being stupid, the deeper we will wade into the unknown and the more likely we are to make big discoveries." Yet this same logic applies to other areas of learning.

Outside the classroom, "big" societal problems are multidimensional, seemingly intractable, and cut across disciplines. They involve solutions that may appear distant or daunting, and may require many steps. Students often give up on the excitement of discovery because they believe they are incapable of successfully addressing such problems.

This is unfortunate. Whatever their interests, students should find a place to study that helps young people acknowledge their "productive stupidity" and use it as a base for engaging in problem-solving and discovery. Their studies should combine the best of predictive logic --rooted in the scientific method -- with a complementary logic that starts with action and is punctuated by reflection, learning, and more action. This is a method that is not just for the entrepreneur who starts a business; it is for the entrepreneurially-minded person who wants to create economic and social value in the world.

Action-learning should play a much greater role in education. Students need the mind-set and tools to be successful in an environment where the assumptions they are working under change at a rapid pace and where, as Dr. Schwartz suggested, they "must be encouraged to push their way into the unknown."

Scott Cook, co-founder of Intuit, made a strong case for action-based learning in a Harvard Business Review article a few years ago, pointing out that, in a world of extreme uncertainty, action is the only way you can create the evidence that allows the scientific method to work. According to Cook, today's modern organizations require us to revel in our ignorance and recognize the opportunities for experimentation and feedback from customers. Intuit has discovered in its most successful divisions that the "going-in" hypotheses end up being disproven by actual interaction with customers.

Whether in schools or companies, we need to celebrate people who are curious about their ignorance and will experiment -- taking action that is the basis for learning what works and what doesn't. In both education and business we're seeing the value of productive stupidity, and how we have moved to a world where desire plus action plus small steps create opportunities for us to engage in the profound learning that creates real breakthroughs.