teaching with Rumsfeld’s taxonomy of knowledge

I like that thing I have come to refer to as the Donald Rumsfeld taxonomy of knowledge: the decomposition of human knowledge into the four categories of the known knowns, the known unknowns, the unknown knowns, and the unknown unknowns.  (See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/There_are_known_knowns for Rumsfeld’s original quote and some discussion.)

Perhaps I’m overstating things by using the term taxonomy. I’m not a philosopher of knowledge, and I don’t want to focus on how Rumsfeld’s quote fits into current discussions of what knowledge is, how we know things, et cetera.  Rather, I want to talk about using Rumsfeld’s taxonomy as a tool in teaching.

In our aikido classes recently, we’ve been exploring aspects of internal movement, specifically aspects of how we use our deep musculature to move ourselves and to move others.  What I find interesting in this exploration is the amount of time I’m currently spending dwelling in the unknown unknown area of Rumsfeld’s taxonomy.

Because for me, this is an exploration of unknown unknowns. One interesting aspect of this, which I’ve started exploring elsewhere, is the nature of the language we use and the language we have to use.

I find these explorations difficult. I am having to find a way of making contact with parts of this deep musculature, the muscles around my spine for instance, that I hadn’t ever thought about before. I don’t yet have a good language for understanding what I’m trying to do and developing that language takes time and practice.

This is a point that those who know me, know that I think about a lot, because I do think this issue of distance between teacher and student is critical, as is the effect that growing mastery has on the language we use.

There is the question of how we move things from the quadrant of unknown unknowns to elsewhere in the taxonomy, and I think that a significant part of this move has to be the development of language that allows us to gain some traction on these items we don’t understand.

After all, a large part of a thing being in the quadrant of unknown unknowns is that we don’t recognize the existence of that thing, because once we have awareness, we can interrogate and ask, is this thing an unknown thing or a known thing.

This same general question is a big influence on my teaching of mathematics. I need to become the guide for my students, guiding them from the dark cave of the unknown unknowns.

Here, similarly to aikido, the unknown unknowns aren’t always, and aren’t often, issues of fact. Often, they are issues of processing of facts. How for instance can we take a question apart, explore its pieces and solve the pieces, and from these create a solution to the original question.

A journey, a quest is then to become the better guide, for myself and for those I’m teaching. And this is a journey I expect never to complete, however much I might improve along the way.

~ by Jim Anderson on 18 November 2018.

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