TED Highlight: On Being Wrong

On Being Wrong

by Kathryn Schulz

This is probably in my top 10 favorite TED talks.  I watch this talk at the beginning of every semester as I assign it to my students but it is always a good reminder for me.  While Kathryn Schulz has a book by a similar name, I have yet to read it in full but I encourage you to have a look-see.

In regards to the TED talk, she paints a very different picture of what it means to be wrong and how being wrong is not the negative sky falling experience that many of us fear.  In my courses, especially in the lower-levels, I spend a relatively large portion of time on this video and follow-up discussions.  So why in a Computer Science class would I be spending time on a talk/topic seemingly unrelated to the material?

Computer Science is a demanding field where you are regularly tasked with designing and development  of novel solutions to problems that have yet to be fully solved.  You will make mistakes, you will be wrong.  The key is to not fear the errors but to embrace them and use them to our advantage.

I regularly see new students take the approach of “let me write it all out first, then I will compile it and fix it”.  This approach leads us to follow the coyote off the cliff without looking down before it is too late.  Over the years I have asked students why they do this and all too often the response is that they do not like seeing all of the errors from the compiler.  It seems students rather try to deal with them all at once then a little as they go.  Compiler errors are our friend.  If we compile early and often, we are going to know that we are running off a cliff in enough time to step back onto solid ground.

More than just for debugging and implementation, this video stresses that errors and misunderstandings can lead us to breakthroughs and innovation.  I feel it is important to stress at an early stage in a student’s career that Computer Science is about creative expression and problem solving, not just programming.  If we are afraid of failing, how can we ever solve some of the more difficult problems we face?