Unknown Known

There are the known knowns; there are things we know we know.  We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know.  But there are also unknown unknowns–there are things we do not know we don’t know. –Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense under George W. Bush

Donald Rumsfeld made these comments in response to the possibility of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.  He got a lot of flack and mockery for it (the flip-floppery of the words and their utter ridiculousness on the surface seemed to encapsulate the Bush White House response on everything, even if the core idea was valid) from an American people that were post 9/11 afraid, sitting on the cusp of a new, violent world.  As Iraq proved, there were plenty that we did not know we did not know.


Nate Silver, the founder of the great sports, politics, and economics data site FiveThirtyEight, also wrote a pretty good (a bit long) book The Signal and the Noise.  It’s worth the read as it will make you think about data in new ways, and really question the assessments we do (and the assumptions we can and cannot make).  In the chapter “What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You” he looks at intelligence failures, including 9/11 and Iraq, and delves into the idea of the “knowns”.  The breakdown is interesting and important:

Known Knowns: You know the problem and have the answer.  You know you need enough chairs for your class to sit.  Thanks to a class list, you know how many kids will be in your class.

Known Unknown: You know the problem but do not have the answer.  This is the first day of class.  You know the material you have to cover.  Unknown are the skills students bring into the classroom: Can they even read the text you are counting on?  Unknown are the personalities: Do they like to learn or are their “issues”?  These questions x 1,000.  Schools combat this unknown with assessments and data; a good administration will give teachers access to databases or just include basic data in your class list (my first job included DRP scores and IEP designations with the list).  Elementary schools spend a lot of time crafting classroom balance when moving kids grades, and reporting on each child before the new teacher takes over.  High schools have more informal information exchanges, in the teachers’ room over coffee or, later, in a bar over drinks.  Schools recognize this problem and use data to solve it as much as they can (caffeine and alcohol are mere balms).

Unknown Unknown: “A contingency that we have not even considered,” writes Silver.  “We have some kind of mental block against it, or our experience is inadequate to image it; it’s as though it doesn’t even exist.” (421)  There is a reason we pay experienced teachers more.  If you’ve had a student teacher recently, or mentored a new one, you can see they have no idea what lies ahead.  Not only do new teachers not realize it can take fifteen minutes for a student to find a pencil, they have NO idea what the home life of many are and how unimportant Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is at that moment in time.  Who knew?  There is a reason so many teachers quit in the first three years.

* If we could get parents, school board members and others to teach for a month the entire tone around teacher negotiations would change.  There is nothing more frustrating (I would argue a microagression) than a non-teacher suggesting a lesson.  “If you would just….”  Thanks, no.

Unknown Known: As veteran and studied educators, we know the results but not the problems (we do make judgments, though–I used to blame middle school teachers for what my 9th graders couldn’t do, until I became a middle school teacher (I try not to blame the elementary teachers)).  I remember a few yeas ago, I got data showing that nearly 25% of my incoming students were illiterate.  Easily, one-third are below grade level.  That state is known.  The problem is not.

Silver does not talk about this–and I have no doubt I’m getting the binary wrong and this state of mental organization doesn’t even exist–but for me the “unknown known” seems to be the blind spot in education.  Instead of looking at a known problem (kids can’t read) and the unknown solution (Why?  How can we fix it?) we should be looking at how we got here.

The Difference and How It Helps

In our district, we are pushed to look at where the student is and solve the problem.  A student can’t read (known) we teach them how (unknown how, but solve it over 180 days).  That’s the school year in a nutshell.  Next year, repeat.

The problem is that it is reactive.  Ten (more?) years ago our district went full RtI (Response to Intervention).  For at least two school years (a lot time for many initiatives to last) we talked about using data (then, a new idea) to drive instruction (an even newer idea).  If Johnny did not know his alphabet, someone would take him aside and drill it; then he’d be with the class and ready to push on as an equal.  It is a great idea.  It reminds me of herding stray sheep to keep the whole alive.  We even got these great laminated folders that detailed much of the philosophy and protocol (I kept mine–it is so clear–while I’ve dumped my share of other such initiatives and supporting materials).  Unfortunately, RtI got watered down by the differentiation push that followed it.  Plus, because PBL (Performance Based Learning) had not yet happened, those teachers in the upper grades complained that their content was too complexly woven together to do a simple intervention (PBL and targets takes some of that argument away–just teach a focused Evidence group, for example, if that’s their weak spot).

The unknown known is not about the student in front of you.  It is about the path that brought them to this moment.  You know the result: one-third of my class struggled with literacy.   I don’t know the problem: For some reason, a large number of students could arrive at middle school without being able to read, but I don’t know why.  We have good teachers in the younger grades.  We have resources.  It is unknown how we got here.

In putting the unknown first (unknown known) we focus on the system, not the individual.  In this instance, I am not looking at my students but those who are coming up.  In theory, if I can know that unknown those coming into my class in future years will not have this issue–they will be able to read, and I can focus on bringing them up even higher.

The Power (and Blind Spots) of Linear Thinking

Semantics?  Perhaps.  But there is a lot to be said about linear thinking.  Our school is dogged by linear thinkers that cannot see the complex interconnectedness that is life (and teaching).  They often hold back discussions and real change because they cannot see how fixing C before B helps get to M–and we all get bogged down.  But linear also clarifies.  In thinking about what lead up to this moment, our solutions look to the future.

The question to ask is simple: How did we get here?  It is one we rarely have time to address because, teaching.  Those one-third in my classroom right now need me.  Those two-thirds need me, too.  Someone, though, needs to be thinking about how we got here.

But we know the unknown unknown (confused or just meta?).  Ten years ago, I sat in a Literacy Committee meeting and heard from the kindergarten about this group.  The next year, the first grade told us about them.  By the time the third grade teacher reported out about “this group” I asked what we were doing about it.  Nothing.  Blank stares.  Crickets.  Then, we threw extra resources at it.  They got better.  To the fourth grade teacher, this was problem: solution.  For me, though, that group was known but I had no idea why.  When they got to me, I knew plenty.

Root out those linear thinkers who bog down every other discussion and put them to work.  One a wall in a conference room put two lists: Cause and Effect.  The latter is what we know (literacy).  Charge them with solving the cause.


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