On cluelessness

“Tell me what you’re already really good at!” That’s the first thing I asked of the students in our Practice Project. It wasn’t just to make them feel good about themselves. Instead, it got us started talking about the process that goes into “getting good”—whether at baseball or cell biology.

Still, a lot of people ask me if my teenage collaborators weren’t exaggerating their own competence when they described how good they were. Given their youth, how could they really know where they stack up? They don’t even know what they don’t know!

Maybe so—but hey, aren’t we all that way?

I’ve been thinking about all this, while reading Errol Morris’s fascinating series of essays in the New York Times, on whether our incompetence actually makes it impossible for us to recognize our incompetence. (Speaking of which, the unpronounceable term for this “anasognosia” kept me away from the piece for days!)

Morris takes off from a scholarly paper by Justin Kruger and David Dunning, “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties of Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-assessments,” from a 1999 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. He goes back and forth with Dunning, trying to make sense of it from several perspectives, including neurology, psychology, philosophy.

It’s a wonderful conversation from beginning to end (including footnotes and readers’ comments). But I kept wanting bring it down to the level of teacher and student, mentor and apprentice, school and community.

For example, Dunning could have been talking about my students—or about me!—when he told Morris:

People can be clueless in a million different ways, even though they are largely trying to get things right in an honest way. Deficits in knowledge, or in information the world is giving them, just leads people toward false beliefs and holes in their expertise.

College students with bad grammar, Dunning found, actually think their grammar is correct. In the same way,

The average detective does not realize the clues he or she neglects. The mediocre doctor is not aware of the diagnostic possibilities or treatments never considered. The run-of-the-mill lawyer fails to recognize the winning legal argument that is out there. People fail to reach their potential … simply because they are not aware of the possible. This is one of the reasons I often urge my student advisees to find out who the smart professors are, and to get themselves in front of those professors so they can see what smart looks like.

It’s an invitation to look at ourselves as well as at our students. For example, Morris muses:

Of course, I’d like to imagine myself near the top, planted firmly in the upper quartile. But upper quartile of what? I could devise a test that makes me look smart. But what would I have to exclude?

School is over for the summer, and now we have time to dream a little. Why not take a dip into the currents of these questions, and come up with your own?

How will we know what next year’s students really know and can do already? How can we point them to explore the territory they don’t even know exists? And who’s going to do that for us?

I’ll send a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind to the most helpful comments that come in on this!


2 thoughts on “On cluelessness

  1. Linda Martin on said:

    I was amazed at what my 4th and 5th grade students accomplished this year. Amazing! We started out a unit of study that was to include the Chesapeake Bay ecology and renewable resources. They walked into the classroom and found a flex tank of pond water with magnifiers and a microscope projector and a simple clear glass of water. The talk that came from that was so exciting and electric. It got us into our study of man’s impact on the bay and finally into their own inquiry and research. We shared our findings in a “share fair” for different classes, parents, and teachers. We’re actually going to continue our learning this summer doing a pond study with advanced high school students! The learning never stops and it integrated almost every other subject. It all started with a tank of water.

  2. Linda Martin on said:

    What matters most is not what you don’t know, but what you’re willing to learn.

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