Overconfident or Visionary?

Although I live in the world of bite-size, modular education that can be remixed and adapted, I also have a very healthy respect for the power of narrative and a good storyteller to enhance learning. Stories are sticky. And that is a good thing for learning. But the seduction of a good story can also lead to overlearning and overconfidence. Dan Kahneman’s recent New York Times Magazine article (Oct. 23), illustrates the point with his own experience evaluating leadership potential and analyzing financial performance of stock traders. For traders, the statistics say that those end-of-year bonuses are just rewarding luck.

“The confidence we experience as we make a judgement is not a reasoned evaluation of the probability that it is right. Confidence is a feeling, one determined mostly by the coherence of the story and by the ease with which it comes to mind, even when the evidence for the story is sparse and unreliable. The bias toward coherence favors overconfidence. An individual who expresses high confidence probably has a good story, which may or may not be true.”

We ought to be able to do something about the exhorbitant salaries and prestige that we give to smart, hard-working gamblers, but the flip-side of that coin is that visionaries also are overconfident. They have a story in their mind that is so compelling that they keep working despite failure. The Emperor of All Maladies (Mukherjee), about the science and scientists behind the search for a cure for various forms of cancer, illustrates careers that spanned decades before some theories panned out. The leaders in Good to Great (Collins) typically took 10 years to turn middling success in a business into great success.

The open education movement is similar. The story is compelling. If we take the vast sums of public money that we spend buying textbooks over and over, and instead create a permanent, shareable, and adaptable store of teaching and learning, it will unleash creativity and productivity trapped in underserved and undernourished (intellectually) populations.

I am still convinced and I am still keen on being a part of that story.

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