Unknown unknowns

“There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know.
There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know.
But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.”

United States Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld

There was a lively reaction to Anthony Seldon’s article in recent editions of the Times Higher Education Supplement. Predictably, most of the views were hostile, apart from the one that suggested Jukebox Jury style voting, with duff lecturers being ejected via a trapdoor in the lecture-room floor…

A view with greater traction brought me back to one of the great fallacies of current educational thinking – that the consumers are in a suitable position to judge what they are getting. It was elegantly argued that for students to judge the quality of teaching, they need to know more about the process (and content) than the teacher, thus reversing the roles of the two.

The big question here is the role of the ‘unknown unknowns’, to quote Donald Rumsfeld. It is too easy to forget that students and pupils do not have the insight that their teachers do, whether into the content or process of teaching. In education, the customer is not always right; we are promoting thinking here, not selling burgers. Nobody would consider for a moment that a piano student, or indeed footballer, knew better than their teacher.  Even if the student holds a view on the short term experience, they will not be in a position to identify the long-term impact, which has yet to happen.

The whole point of real education is to explore (by whatever means)  that which the student not only does not know, but that which they were not even aware of. To default to the realm of the ‘known unknowns’ is to revert to Training rather than Education.

This also questions the whole concept of self- and peer-review, at least as currently constituted. In order to assess whether pupils reached their supposed targets, they needed to know what those targets meant in advance; this implies that they knew where they were heading, which is impossible in the case of unknown unknowns. This is almost as naive as the seemingly-unchallenged concept of the self-directed learner – that idealistic notion whereby students pluck universal truths from the ether by sole virtue of their innate inner quest for enlightenment, the teacher merely constituting an impediment to progress. Yes, I exaggerate for effect, but this is beyond the abilities of many adults, let alone children. Otherwise, why have teachers at all?

Yet again, we have an example of the undue insistence on process actually limiting outcomes. The only way self-review might work is to ask the question, “what did you find out that was completely unknown to you?” But that would be far too open-ended…

I am not diverted from my view that student feedback can perform a useful purpose – but it is very dependent on the nature of the feedback we seek. The process must remain the sole property of the pupils and teacher. Simplistic score-sheets and target-review boxes will provide nothing of very much use to anyone other than external assessors of classroom practice – and it is they that I suspect this process is really for.


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