Engaging “Productive Stupidity”


Xconomist Report

I recently came across an article in Cell Science that intrigued me and gets to the core of this question. The title—“The Importance of Stupidity in Scientific Research”—was reason alone to pique my curiosity. What I didn’t expect was to find a powerful insight into student learning in today’s highly uncertain world.

Martin A. Schwartz, of the University of Virginia Department of Microbiology, wrote that “we don’t do a good enough job of teaching our students how to be productively stupid—the kind of stupidity inherent in our efforts to push our way into the unknown.” Dr. Schwartz is referring to scientific education when he says “the more comfortable we become with being stupid, the deeper we will wade into the unknown and the more likely we are to make big discoveries.” Yet this same logic applies to other areas of learning.

Outside the classroom, “big” societal problems are multidimensional, seemingly intractable, and cut across disciplines. They involve solutions that may appear distant or daunting, and may require many steps. Students often give up on the excitement of discovery because they believe they are incapable of successfully addressing such problems.

This is unfortunate. Whatever their interests, students should find a place to study that helps young people acknowledge their “productive stupidity” and use it as a base for engaging in problem-solving and discovery. Their studies should combine the best of predictive logic—rooted in the scientific method—with a complementary logic that starts with action and is punctuated by reflection, learning, and more action. This is a method that is not just for the entrepreneur who starts a business; it is for the entrepreneurially minded person who wants to create economic and social value in the world.

Action-learning should play a much greater role in education. Students need the mind-set and tools to be successful in an environment where the assumptions they are working under change at a rapid pace and where, as Dr. Schwartz suggested, they “must be encouraged to push their way into the unknown.”

Xconomist Report

Leonard "Len" Schlesinger returned to the Harvard Business School as a Baker Foundation Professor of Business Administration in July of 2013 after concluding a five-year term as the 12th president of Babson College. Follow @lschlesinger

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One response to “Engaging “Productive Stupidity””

  1. Ahmed Jama says:


    I couldn’t agree more with what it was mentioned. Also I created a tool called “Effective laziness” in regard to search method which has a different concept of the regular search of knowledge.
    Example: when a lecturer ask in assignment about a topic,rather than searching for articles about that topic, I would prefer searching first about the keyword of the topic. Then I would search about powerpoints regarding this topic. This will avoid me getting board on extra search and let me focus about the goal. Also I will search through the keywords about related youtube videos about it.

    I hope this will be beneficial and hope to hear from you soon