Lessons from Adam Grant’s Think Again (2021)

It takes humility to reconsider our past commitments, doubt to question our present decisions, and curiosity to reimagine our future plans. What we discover along the way can free us from the shackles of our familiar surroundings and our former selves. Rethinking liberates us to do more than update our knowledge and opinions it’s a tool for leading a more fulfilling life.

Grant (p. 243)

During my doctoral defence my committee asked me what I would have done differently. I responded with an emphatic “EVERYTHING!” If I knew then what I know now it would have been a completely different project.

After reading Adam Grant’s Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know (2021) I think my response demonstrates how much a really did learn in those five years. As he explains, his book is “an invitation to let go of knowledge and opinions that are no longer serving you well, and to anchor your sense of self in flexibility rather than consistency.” (p. 12)

Initially I was intrigued by Grant’s commentary on attachment. He explains, “I’ve learned that two kinds of detachment are especially useful: detaching your present from your past and detaching your opinions from your identity” (p. 62). For me I saw connections to how post-secondary educators have adapted to online teaching and learning. I don’t identify as a lecturer. In fact, I often tell students that public speaking is my worst fear. I wonder how this detachment from an identifying as a lecturer served me during the pivot. Did it allow me to experiment with the curation of content more? The sudden shift from fact to face learning to remote delivery also forced me to acknowledge I didn’t know how to teach online. By the end of March, I signed up for course on how to teach in a mode new to me and as a student I was able to experiment with different approaches. Put in the role of the learner I was completely humbled. Grant quotes psychologist Elizabeth Krumrei Mancuso and her colleagues who write, “Learning requires the humility to realize one has something to learn” (p. 25).

Then I became curious to see how I could apply his scientific approach winning debates and influencing people in my role as division mentor for humanities. This position was recently created to support colleagues navigate the pivot to remote teaching due to the COVID-19 pandemic. My own experience aligns with Grant’s theories of how people express their preach, prosecute, and politick to argue their beliefs. In many cases my first reaction was to act like a preacher extoling the virtues of online teaching and learning, point like a prosecutor at those who were struggling to adapt to our new reality, and persuade colleagues to embrace the changes like a politician.

Instead, in thinking like a scientist I am interested in exploring various hypothesis about teaching and learning in our current unprecedented times. Grant explains: “Thinking like a scientist involves more than reacting with an open-mind. It means being actively open-minded. It requires searching for reasons why we might be wrong – not for reasons why we must be right – and revising our views based on what we learn” (p. 52). Writing for Inside Higher Ed, Joshua Kim also explores the implications of Grant’s Think Again for the post-secondary landscape post-pandemic.

Additionally, without specifically naming it, Grant makes a compelling case for open pedagogical practices. In ‘Chapter 9: Rewriting the Textbook’ he gives an example of a high school teacher who has students pick a chapter from their history textbook and rewrite it to include people and events they view as underrepresented. Rethinking occurs as learners are encouraged to be critical of the information they are consuming and thoughtful of constructing knowledge themselves.

He continues on to challenge traditional lecture practices in favour of active learning, noting “Lectures aren’t designed to accommodate dialogue or disagreement; they turn students into passive receivers of information rather than active thinkers” (p. 192). He also recognizes that while students often enjoy lectures research demonstrates they actually gain more knowledge and skill from being engaged in active learning. Grant believes “good teachers introduce new thoughts, but great teachers introduce new ways of thinking” (p. 203).

I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested how to enact change for themselves, and within their communities. He gives concrete strategies for having the difficult conversations we are all facing in 2021. As always Grant has given me something to think about well after I closed his book.

And perhaps most importantly I will stop asking my daughters what they want to be when they grow up. Read Think Again, to find out why.

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