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Are Your Kids Hedgehogs Or Foxes?

Wednesday, July 22, 2009 at 09:40 AM EDT

Several months ago, Sharon Begley of Newsweek magazine wrote a quick article describing the inaccurate predictions and comments of online and cable political pundits. Begley discusses the reason why so many “experts” are wrong so often and cites research by Phillip Tetlock of Standford University:

At first, Tetlock’s ongoing study of 82,361 predictions by 284 pundits (most but not all of them American) came up empty. He initially looked at whether accuracy was related to having a Ph.D., being an economist or political scientist rather than a blowhard journalist, having policy experience or access to classified information, or being a realist or neocon, liberal or conservative.

hedgehogBut it turns out that prediction accuracy, the ability to be “right,” has nothing to do with any of Tetlock’s first ideas. Being “right” has everything to do with whether the expert is a hedgehog or a fox.

That bestiary comes from the political philosopher Isaiah Berlin, who in 1953 argued that hedgehogs “know one big thing.” They apply that one thing (for instance, that ethnicity and language are primal; ergo, any country that contains many ethnic groups will break up) everywhere, express supreme confidence in their forecasts, dismiss opposing views and are drawn to top-down arguments deduced from that Big Idea. Foxes, in contrast, “know many things,” as Berlin put it. They consider competing views, make bottom-up inductive arguments from an array of facts and doubt the power of Big Ideas. “The hedgehog-fox dimension did what none of the other traits did,” says Tetlock.

Basically, what matters most is not what the pundits think but how they think. Begley goes on to describe this process in more descriptive language:

At one extreme, hedgehogs seek certainty and closure, dismiss information that undercuts their preconceptions and embrace evidence that reinforces them, in what is called “belief defense and bolstering.” At the other extreme, foxes are cognitively flexible, modest and open to self-criticism.

Yeah . . . so?

I guess what I see is that we as educators do a great job of preparing our kids to be hedgehogs – prepping for tests, memorizing textbooks and limiting choices. And I understand this is a gross simplification but one thing leads to another. If we are training kids to be great hedgehogs, then perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised when “experts” can’t get things right.

So more problem-based learning, more performance tasks, more appropriate video games and simulations, basically more “academic discomfort” for our kids is needed.

Our job as teachers becomes a bit clearer perhaps when we know our job is to develop foxes, not just hedgehogs.