Monday, 28 January 2008

Handling misrepresentation

Marilyn and I do a reading from William Barclay’s daily Study Bible each day. In today’s reading based on II Corinthians 12:1-10, Barclay relates the following story.

“There is nothing so hard to face as misinterpretation and cruel misjudgement. Once a man flung a pail of water over Archelaus the Macedonian. He said nothing at all. And when a friend asked him how he could bear it so serenely, he said, “He threw the water not on me, but on the man he thought I was.”” (p 260).

The key here is to be confident about who and what we are. People do pour cold water on our ideas but if we have confidence in what we are doing then we should not allow their uniformed criticism to turn us from our path. Alternatively, maybe, they think they know what we are endeavouring to achieve and unintentionally cause more problems for our chosen direction. Because they think that they understand us, they act without really listening to what we say. Alternatively, maybe they simply have a different conception of the circumstances and act according to their belief without seeing that our conception of the circumstances is different and they are actually being an obstruction rather than assisting. Are we able, like Archelaus, to see that they are not throwing water on us but rather on their misconception? Can we continue to move forward with confidence?

We should not however be arrogant about our own conceptions. We too could be misrepresenting the situation. Are we prepared to listen and learn? Are we willing to evaluate and to see our own shortcomings?

Research is often like that. Different researchers have conceptions about what is valid research and they will write another’s work off without really seeing what has been done or the possible significance of the work. Taking time to listen and to try to understand can often bring fruits. We see things in a different light and learn.

My own research is about the conceptions that practitioners have of objet-oriented programming. It is quite surprising the differences even amongst very experienced people. However, it is not simply in the writing of the code that there are differences in perception. There are differences in understanding with respect to how to approach or manage the task. There are also differences in how to approach the teaching of programming. It is common to see people talking past each other rather than hearing what the other is saying. Often the problem is about particular ways of approaching the task rather than the principles that determine what needs to be done. Are we able to step back in the face of disagreement and see things from the others perspective. Let us not be caught pouring cold water on someone’s idea without first attempting to understand where he or she is coming from and what drives his or her thinking.

One of the nice things about the BRACELet research group is that we are learning to create ways to gather data to verify or disprove our assumptions about novice programmers. Instead of drawing a conclusion without evidence, we are looking for ways to verify our suspicions. It is all about verifying our conceptions and ensuring that we are correctly representing the situation.

The same applies to faith and a lot of life. If we judge without hearing then we miss the real need and alienate those that we think we are trying to help. Take the time to listen and not to prejudge. You might be surprised at the difference that it makes.


Barclay, W. (1975). The letters to the Corinthians (Revised ed.). Edinburgh: The Saint Andrews Press.

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