Cognitive Enablers, Metacognition

Not Knowing What We Don’t Know is Destroying Us

We live in a world where everyone knows how to think – don’t they? If thinking is defined as a stream of consciousness, then everyone thinks. At least I think that everyone thinks.

However, when I talk about thinking, I’m referring to developing our cognitive enablers, both basic and advanced. Basic cognitive enablers deal with concrete symbol manipulation – reading, writing, and numeracy – as well as basic problem-solving. Advanced cognitive enablers involve the understanding and manipulation of abstract concepts. Most people have some level of competency with the basic cognitive enablers, but studies have shown that less than 10% of the population has even a basic grasp of advanced cognitive enablers. The most powerful, least understood, and most difficult to find is metacognition – thinking about thinking and understanding ourselves.

Another definition of metacognition is knowing what you know. As metacognition develops and you begin to know what you know, you also begin to know how much you don’t know.

Not knowing what we don’t know is destroying us.

In 1999, Kruger and Dunning published a paper called, “Unskilled and Unaware of it: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments.” Basically, they found that “…people of low ability have illusory superiority and mistakenly assess their cognitive ability as greater than it is. The cognitive bias of illusory superiority comes from the inability of low-ability people to recognize their lack of ability. (Wikipedia)”.

As Darwin said, “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge”.

With a severe shortage of workers who have advanced cognitive enablers, AI implementation is being stalled in a number of areas. The automation of ports is being held up because of the severe shortage of highly skilled workers. Who knows how many other AI implementations are not happening because of the shortage of highly skilled workers.

There are those who will applaud the delay of progress without actually thinking it through. As AI progresses and advanced cognitive enablers languish, ways will be found to work around any shortage. Don’t be fooled into thinking that AI will really ever develop true advanced cognitive enablers, but AI workarounds will work, and those opportunities available to people who might have filled the gaps will be gone.

During my time advocating for people to engage in learning advanced cognitive enablers, I have watched as others advocate for the same thing. Too many of those cheering this initiative on, clearly lack well developed advanced cognitive enablers. Their reasoning and thinking skills have demonstrated that, although they clearly think they have these skills, they don’t.

So, what we have are hundreds of millions of educated people who went to college or university to learn to think. They memorized well and received good degrees. Tens of millions have gone on to obtain higher degrees and have continued to memorize well. Almost all of these graduates have graduated without the self-insight to even think about how much they don’t know.

As I talk and write and interact with people in all walks of life, I am astonished at the almost total lack of awareness that people have about themselves and their cognitive abilities. I find it exciting to find someone to talk to who demonstrates the insight that they know far, far less than they don’t know. More than just knowing, the real insight is when we realize just how difficult advanced cognitive enablers are to learn. I have studied this area for decades, have researched how people learn and develop these skills, and struggle almost every day to improve on the skills I have already somewhat developed. I work constantly to get better at thinking and worry over my own lack of understanding when it comes to higher-order metacognition. Do I really understand as much as I think I understand? I guess I can ask my plumber (student, butcher, colleague, professor) because he or she knows all anybody needs to know about pretty well everything.

Just like any skill we can acquire during our lives, competence does not mean mastery. That is why there are so few masterpieces in any area of our lives. We don’t think of real thinking as producing masterpieces, but it does.

It is frustrating to interact with someone who knows a little bit about advanced cognitive enablers and believes that they are a master of thinking. Equally (if not more) frustrating are those who have developed some level of competence with their thinking abilities within a very narrow field and believe that this means that their competence extends to all of their thinking. Imagine how frustrating it is to deal with professors and lecturers who may have competence within their field and because they teach, believe that their highly developed thinking ability endows them with that gut feeling of being exactly correct in their teaching. I believe we have all observed where gut feeling expertise leads us.

And so we are left with those who are truly ignorant of anything but their stream of consciousness along with memorized facts who are great thinkers, those who know about advanced cognitive enablers and have developed a little bit of thinking ability and are great thinkers, and those who have competence within a narrow field of expertise who are great thinkers.

How do we convince anyone from any of these groups that we can help them develop higher level thinking abilities? How do we convince anyone that they need to develop their advanced cognitive enablers? How do we overcome our own Dunning-Krugerisms that tell us that we know all that we need to know, about something, or understand all that we need to understand, or think as well as we need to think?

We recognize the value of advanced cognitive enablers. We recognize the need for advanced cognitive enablers. We understand the power that could be unleashed if millions had well developed advanced cognitive enablers. But, how do we help ourselves and others see that we all have so far to go to fully realize our individual and collective potential?


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