One of the easiest ways to be a moron is to think you know something that you actually don’t. And right out of the gate, let me just admit that I’m adept at this kind of idiocy.
But it’s not just me. In 1999, social psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger formalized something that we’ve all seen before: when a person knows just a bit about a topic, it’s easy for them to think they know more about the topic than the people who actually do know something about it. The Dunning-Kruger effect is the scientific version of the old phrase, “He knows just enough to be dangerous,” and it’s fun to point it out in others. We can all grin at the teenagers who know more about parenting than their parents or the armchair coaches hollering at their TV screens.
But the Dunning-Kruger effect isn’t just about other people — it’s about you and me, too. One of our chief obstacles to learning is when we suffer from the delusion that we have no need to learn. A good indicator of our level of knowledge is the number of questions that we have.
From Scott H. Young’s recent release, Ultralearning:
It is true that the more you learn about a subject, the more questions arise. The reverse also seems to be true, that the fewer questions you ask, the more likely you are to know less about the subject.(p. 190)
So, how do we get better at teaching, expand the number of questions we have, and avoid the swampy marshlands of Dunning-Kruger? One good approach is to regularly submit ourselves to feedback-rich processes. Here are two ways to do this.
Teach. Few processes are as rife with feedback potential as teaching a room of kids. In fact, it’s the abundance and ambiguity of feedback signals that makes teaching so hard. First, the feedback is abundant. In my classes of 35 students, I get hundreds of signals per hour from each kid, ranging from posture to words to writings to discussions. One of the main ways teachers can drown themselves is thinking that all of these signals are equal in value. They are not, and this brings us to the second quality of feedback signals we get during a given lesson: they are ambiguous. That kid over there with his head down — that could be feedback about my lesson, feedback about my expectations, feedback about the time of day or what the child has or hasn’t eaten in the last hour, feedback about what the child believes about my class right now. In light of this abundance, we need to think deeply about what it is we’re trying to do, what it is we need students to do, and what it takes to get students to do those things. Note how the abundance of feedback signals in a given lesson can awaken us to all kinds of fundamental questions.
But Dave, you might ask, if teaching is a naturally feedback-rich process, then why are some teachers so ignorant of their own incompetence? My answer to this is that people aren’t robots or lines of code. The human being is more than a set of variables. And so one person can go through a day of teaching gaining lots of good questions, but another can go through being completely bored — and tomorrow, their roles can be completely reversed. You and I aren’t static things. This is why the inner work of teaching is so critical — it’s the only means we have for submitting to the feedback-richness of a given lesson.
Talk with people who challenge your thinking. Precious few are the friends and mentors who take us seriously enough to ask the hard questions and push us for clearer thinking. These folks are rare in part because being the kind of person to ask hard questions and push for clear thinking is unnatural for most of us, coming only from years of cultivating a character. And in part they are rare because we don’t seek them out.
So, do seek them out. And then establish safety and vulnerability with them so that you can hash out what you’re wrestling with, with all your vigor. And if you’ve only got one or two or three people like this, then wow are you rich — far richer than that person down the road whose house is bigger or car is nicer.
It’s worth noting that both of these feedback-rich processes involve depending on and respecting other living humans.