Monday 30 April 2007

How we Know what we Know

We are probably all familiar with statements such as 'Knowledge is Power', or 'A little knowledge is a dangerous thing'. However, most of us never stop to consider how we acquire knowledge. For some people this involves hours of study, for others, it seems to be absobed without effort, almost like osmosis.

One of the most famous, or perhaps infamous pronouncements on the nature of knowledge came from Donald Rumsfeld, the then US Secretary of State for Defence. He baffled millions of people by offering the following at a Press Conference . . . . .

As we know, There are known knowns. There are things we know we know.
We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say, we know there are some things we do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns, The ones we don't know we don't know.
(Feb. 12, 2002, Department of Defense news briefing)

Confused? Most people are, at first reading. However, if you go back and read his statement slowly, line by line - and actually stop to think about it for a moment - the mist begins to clear a little. Perhaps it does make sense after all.

In fact, the basis for his statement has a solid foundation in Educational Theory about how we learn. The scientific approach to a learning cycle - especially to learning a skill - suggests that it involves the following stages:

Stage 1 Unconscious Incompetence
Essentially this is the 'things that we don't know, we don't know'. An example might be driving a car . . . as a child we are quite happy simply to be transported from A to B, we don't know (or care) that we are not able to do this ourselves

Stage 2 Conscious Incompetence
This is where we develop an awareness that there are things that we don't know, and would like to learn. Using the car driving analogy, this usually happens in teenage years, when we develop an interest in being able to master this skill independently

Stage 3 Conscious Competence
This applies when we are in the process of learning a new skill, and suddenly we 'know that we know' how to do something, even though the process may feel awkward, complex and difficult to master. We consciously concentrate on the discrete stages, and are acutely aware of each distinct element in the process (e.g. simultaneously pressing clutch & changing gears etc).

Stage 4 Unconscious Competence
This is the final stage in our learning transition, when we have mastered the skill to such a degree that we undertake it automatically, without conscious thought. Those of us who have learned to drive will be aware that, after a short time, our ability (or competence) reaches such a high level that we no longer need to concentrate on the elements - we carry them out unconsciously.

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