Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Importance of the DKDK Zone

Every now and then, a friend sends me an article or a photo or some kind of artifact with a note attached that just says, “Entering the DKDK zone?” One such article arrived just the other week from a couple of different people living in different parts of the world. The article was Errol Morris’ series about “The Anosognosic’s Dilemma.” In this series, Morris is exploring the implications of the Dunning-Kruger effect, which demonstrates how often we are unable to acknowledge and correct our incompetence. This effect is reminiscent of Garrison Keeler’s fictional town, Lake Wobegon, where “all the children are above average.” In fact, one rather famous study of college professors showed that a whopping 94% of them thought of themselves as “above average in comparison to their peers.” The Times itself ran another story while it was running the Morris series about the Lake Wobegon effect on law schools.

To those of us interested in how events become experiences in our lives, this effect triggers, as it did for Dunning, the profundity of the Donald Rumsfeld quote from our previous blog post. Remember this piece? Rumsfeld commented at a Pentagon briefing, “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 that we know there are some things that we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” Here is a clip of Rumsfeld’s quote set to music.

To flip things on their head, the problem is that we are obsessed with knowing things, but there will always be things we just “don’t know we don’t know.” One solution might be to try to figure out how to get into that zone of unknown unknowns—the DKDK zone. In other words, don’t avoid the DKDK--actively seek it out. Being there might just provide the necessary confusion or disequilibrium (key precursors of insight and experience) that would force us to create new paradigms? Remember back to the first blog post when we were discovering how important un-learning is to Kuhn’s idea of paradigm shifts? Once we were “in the zone,” perhaps some meta-cognitive piece would kick in and we could see how clueless we had been in the past? And we could possibly uncover whether our cluelessness was denial, rationalization or some other form of self-deception? What would someone who actively did this look like? How would they move through the world?

Schools, however, seem to be set up in a way that rewards knowing things and punishes not-knowing things. Ask most high school students, and they will tell you that they spend a fair amount of time protecting their ignorance and trying to make sure that no one knows, especially the teacher, that they don’t know something. Imagine a huge pie cut into two parts—one very skinny portion of what you know and one enormous slice of what you don’t know. Your job in school is to make the “know” part bigger and the “don’t know” part smaller.

From an experience-based education point of view, this dichotomy causes huge problems and chokes off learning. An experience-based epistemological pie begins with three parts—one even skinnier part representing what we know, another slightly largely slice representing what we don’t know, and a HUGE piece representing what we don’t even know we don’t even know. Adding the DKDK fundamentally changes the nature of the learning that takes place in an experience-based classroom in part because you can exclaim, “Wow, I didn’t know that” and have it be the jumping off point for exploration rather than a failing grade.

Think about some of the most profound “learning experiences” you have had—do you notice any patterns? How many of them are times where you did NOT know something, where you were in the DKDK zone, and then you somehow worked your way out into a place where you leaned back and said, “Wow, I didn’t even know I didn’t even know that. Now, I clearly see that I don’t understand.” The effect was probably that you didn’t look at the world, or yourself, the same way again.

One corollary that emphasizes just how crucial the DKDK zone is to what Swedish researchers called “deep learning” is that it shifts the emphasis away from only providing answers and onto creating questions. If schools were really, truly about “life-long learning and focusing on the questions we need to ask for the 21st century” as so many claim, then the DKDK would be a staple idea of every class. Living with the “unknown unknown” means that we must try to figure out what the questions themselves are, not just how to answer questions. And now you are into another area of experience-based learning—why do some people seem to ask great questions that open up dialogue and increase understanding? And, if you inhabited the DKDK zone regularly, would you learn how to ask those kinds of questions?

Just out of curiosity, how many of those instances where you entered the DKDK zone occurred while you were travelling somewhere away from home? My bet is that a number of them did. Exploring why that is true will give us some clues about how we can make “travelling to new lands” a part of our daily lives at home. Proust gives us a clue when he writes, “The only real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes, but in having new eyes, in seeing the universe with the eyes of another, of hundreds of others, in seeing the hundreds of universes that each of them sees.”

That said, I am off to travel for two weeks—looking to get into the DKDK zone in a big way.

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