Learning to Learn in Public

As Tom Friedman has been saying for years, “private is over.”

He’s mostly referring to — and most people associate that idea with — what we used to think of as personal life: the kinds of activities that used to be what you did with your friends that the whole world didn’t need to know about, and which now make up the bulk of our social media feeds.

But what if we apply this same idea to learning?

Logically, the idea of learning implies a process of being wrong at first, and hopefully less so over time. But when our culture seems to demand that everyone be right all the time, and that we be judged on what we’ve done lately, how are we supposed to take the risks required to learn anything? Why not just parrot what all the other micropundits are saying — or even just keep our mouths closed?

Good schools used to be the original “safe spaces:” a place where real-world consequences weren’t denied, but were intentionally suspended somewhat. The idea was that it was better to make a mistake in school, where the worst you’d suffer was a bad grade, than on the job, where mistakes could be really costly. Train in the dojo, where the losses don’t “really” count, so you don’t have to lose a real fight.

But when we insist on keeping score everywhere, all the time, we lose the safe-to-be-unsafe character that made the schoolhouse special. A bad grade used to mean you had to be reprocessed for compliance; now, an opinion you hazard in class (or, heaven forbid, in writing) might follow you forever. You might learn and evolve, but it won’t.

When that becomes our model of reality, it seems we’ve got two choices: one is to allow the culture to keep demanding that we see all the practices as well as the games, and indulge our desire to play head coach of everyone else’s life. The other is to learn to calmly separate the mistakes that matter from the ones that make us better.

Choose one path and we’ll never learn. Choose the other, and we stand a chance of learning to learn in public.

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