I Don’t Know, Pt. 2
One of the great challenges in reclaiming the power of saying “I don’t know” and avoiding the pitfalls mentioned in the last post – namely, giving bad information and limiting your ability to learn – is our current conception of intelligence. We tend to measure our intelligence – or, more commonly, how smart we are – in terms of what we know. The more you know, the smarter you are. But a few years ago, my friend and colleague Dr. Mary Shore suggested another way to think of intelligence that I have found incredibly helpful. I’ll cover it with a series of pictures, also suggested by Mary.
Figure 1 – Let’s talk about your average person who likes to think and knows plenty of stuff. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll call this person “the Thinker” . The thought bubble above his head represents all the stuff he knows:
Figure 2: Everything outside the thought bubble is what he doesn’t know. This is also important because it represents potential learning. What I want to focus on in particular is the perimeter of the thought bubble, because if this Thinker is self-aware, the perimeter represents not just the boundaries of his knowledge but the border between what he knows and what he knows he doesn’t know. (Complicated? Give it a minute and it will sink in. ). The perimeter is crucial, therefore, because it reflects a conscious knowledge of what is still left to learn.
Figure 3: Let’s now move to another person, we’ll call this one – simply, if not that imaginatively J – Thinker 2. As you can tell by the thought bubble, this Thinker knows a lot, too; in fact, a lot more than Thinker 1.
Figure 4: But notice, now, what happens to the perimeter. As the thought bubble of what this Thinker knows grows, so does the perimeter representing what he knows he doesn’t know! Suddenly, we can imagine that being smart isn’t simply about knowing stuff, but about knowing how much stuff you don’t know and still have to learn:
I think there’s a lot of potential in this slight shift of vision regarding knowledge and intelligence because it puts a premium not just on knowledge but on curiosity, not just on knowing but on learning. It portrays intelligence, that is, as an active, curious quality that is always a bit restless, never content to rest contentedly on a body of knowledge but always exploring the boundaries of that knowledge, eager to learn more from anyone who can teach.
Which means that “I don’t know” can prove a powerful tool to this kind of Thinker, as admitting what you don’t know is the first and crucial step to learning more
So here’s my question: can we form and nurture communities where we value curiosity as much as content and esteem learning as much as knowledge? In the Making Sense series of books I am writing about the Christian faith, I’ve employed a technique that has worked pretty well toward this end. Most Christians approach adult education classes – whether Bible study, Adult Forum, or whatever – with a good deal of apprehension because a) they know these things (the Bible, our faith, etc.) are important and b) they feel they don’t know as much about them as they should. So they are embarrassed, worried about being “found out” and perhaps regarded as deficient. So in these books I’ve suggested reframing how we think about IQ. We tend to think of IQ in terms of the Intelligence Quotient test; that is, as a measure of what we already know. I suggested thinking about IQ instead as representing our “Insights” – what we’re discovering through our reading and study – and our “Question” – what we still wonder about. Shifting from what we know to what we are discovering and what questions have been provoked by our study has proven to be a remarkable aid to free people up to enter into study regardless of their starting point.
Let me know what you’ve tried and discovered about inviting people into deeper learning, valuing their questions and discoveries as much as their knowledge, and together creating a climate where admitting “I don’t know” isn’t a defeat but an invitation to greater learning. Thanks!