What if you’re wrong? A question for researchers

Part of my work involves coaching graduate students who are learning to become researchers. It is not uncommon for students to start out their journey thinking that research is about proving what you already know – or think you know. And so, we start out our journey with some provocative questions, designed to break away from entrenched ways of thinking about the world.

A couple of questions my students hear me ask like a broken record are:

  • How do you define… ? (e.g. How do you define “leadership”?)
  • What counts as… And how do you know? (e.g. What counts as “the right answer” and how do you know?)
  • Who decides? (e.g. “Who decides what it means to be a leader?”)
  • According to whom…? What literature have you consulted to substantiate this claim? (e.g. “Leadership, according to whom? What literature have you consulted to substantiate this claim?”)

As we evolve as researchers, we necessarily dig deep into these kinds of questions.

When you become a “Master Researcher” (which is effectively what you have signed up for with a Master’s degree), you come to realize that it is no longer enough to “just know” something. We recognize that our personal experience, however powerful, is limited. We not only understand, but we insist on acknowledging, that what we think we know might be wrong.

I often ask students, “What if you’re wrong?”

If the first reaction to that question is a visceral twisting of your gut, a gob smacked open mouth and an instant response of “I am not wrong!” Well, then… you’re probably wrong. And chances are, you have some “un-learning” to do before you can produce quality research in the social sciences (or perhaps any field).

Once you get to the point where you can react with deep curiosity, with a surprising dose of delight and your instant response is, “Well, indeed! What IF I am wrong? What would that mean? I have no idea. I could be wrong. Hmmm… What a delicious puzzle. I really want to understand what would mean to be wrong, as much as it would to be right. Let the discovery begin!”

The less attached we become to being “right”, the more skilled of a researcher we can become.

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Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

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