Knowing and Not Knowing

If I don't know I don't know
                                     I think I know
If I don't know I know
                              I think I don't know

Laing R D (1970) Knots Harmondsworth; Penguin (p.55)

"He that knows not,
    and knows not that he knows not
        is a fool.
            Shun him

He that knows not,
    and knows  that he knows not
        is a pupil.
            Teach him.

He that knows,
    and knows not that he knows
        is asleep
            Wake him.

He that knows,
    and knows that he knows
        is a teacher.
            Follow him."

(Arabic proverb)

NEIGHBOUR R (1992) The Inner Apprentice London; Kluwer Academic Publishers. p.xvii

"We know what we know, we know that there are things we do not know, and we know that there are things we don't know we don't know" 

Donald Rumsfeld (4 Sept 2002) (Woodward, 2004: 171.  Video here.) It is ironic, perhaps, that the initial insight is allegedly Arabic.

This paper is playing around with a conceit: two senses of the term "know". However, it is all in a professional cause.

The two senses are those of:

Awareness of onw state of knowledge; and knowledge of the outside world

There are of course four possible combinations, which are explored below. "Knowledge" but not simply as Bloom understands it: potentially this is the whole cognitive domainYou may find parallels with the witting and willing practice model, and also with the familiar "unconscious incompetence" to "unconscious competence" model, which relates primarily to practical skills: here we are exploring knowledge. Laing's poetic exploration of its interpersonal convolutions cited above (it goes on for another 21 pages), and the citation of the idea by Neighbour (1992) credited as an Arabic proverb demonstrate that it has a considerable provenance.

Not even knowing that you don't know


Not knowing you don't know

The first possibility is that of being unaware that you don't know something. This is the "ignorance is bliss" state, enjoyed by everyone who pontificates about politics in pubs. It is also the position of many people on "soft" occupations (such as teaching, or social work) which look from the outside as if "any fool could do it". (Some do.) And it is engendered by consummate professionals who make what they do look easy (such as plasterers and chefs and popular novelists and...).

Many students start from this position, and although the Neighbour proverb calls them "fools", it is not really fair. Let's go on �


The move to realising that you don't know


So the first move is often to make learners aware of their ignorance. This is tricky, in practice. Unless they are a captive audience it is quite easy to frighten them off. (It is also quite seductive, because it is a chance to show off your own level of knowledge or competence.) On the other hand, it is a crucial step in developing motivation to learn.

There are various ways of doing it.

The trick is to show something which is (so far) beyond the students' reach, but not so far beyond it that they will despair. The second trick is to make it interesting. I have deliberately not mentioned strategies for doing this in accountancy.

More significantly:

Knowing you don't know

The move to knowing that you know

This move, from "knowing that you don't know" to "knowing that you know" is what most learning and hence teaching is all about.

Raising awareness of what you already know

Knowing and not knowing that you know

The interaction between knowing and not knowing that you know is however more complex and much neglected.

There are two kinds of knowledge (in a third sense) or practice involved here.

Neighbour's Arabic proverb enjoins us to "awaken" someone in this position, which means to take them back, counter-clockwise on the diagram, to an awareness of their knowledge. There is a link here with Mezirow's concept of "transformative learning", in which education leads to a re-evaluation of life so far.

The problematic expert

The fourth possibility is touched on in the discussion of expertise. This the person who (wait for it!) knows that she knows but does not know how she knows�or cannot express it. Ask about a particularly brilliant bit of practice and you will get a banal answer which might have come out of the textbook, but which totally fails to do justice to the complexity of what she has done. Sometimes that answer will be given because she does not want to appear a "smart-arse" ("Ass" if you are American, but I wouldn't wish to confuse you with references to donkeys.) Sometimes, though, she might claim that it is a matter of "not being able to put it into words" or even, disconcertingly, of a "hunch".

She may even be afraid of trying to express her expertise, for fear that an inadequate exposition will somehow jeopardise fragile knowledge. Once she has said it, it might become ossified. She might feel obliged to live up to her exposition and limit that insight and creativity which goes beyond words.

Some things we can teach, and some we can't.

The full cycle

So that's the whole story. Or is it? Is there any connection between the "Don't know that you know" stage and the "Don't know that you don't know" stage? Possibly (but not always).

The Bottom Line

Clearly we have to get people to realise what they don't know, if necessary. But fascinating though it is, the inarticulate expertise of not knowing that you know is a dead end from the learning and teaching point of view. The only open position, with potential for development, is that of knowing what you know.


"Unconscious incompetence" etc.

Most readings seem to accept this model as a given: it is most frequently cited as an idea from Neuro-Linguistic Programming. The following sites explore it without provenance:

The following sources have been cited as its origin, although I have not so far been able to get hold of them to check them out:

  • Dubin, P (1962) 'Human Relations in Administration', Englewood Cliffs, NJ, Prentice-Hall
  • Kirkpatrick, D. L. (1971). A practical guide for supervisory training and development. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co. 
  • There's a fascinating exploration of the whole story at

Ignorance Map

The medical school at the University of Arizona has taken similar ideas further with their Curriculum on Medical Ignorance (CMI) and developed the Q-Cubed; Questions, questioning and questioners project. Here is their "Ignorance Map", which identifies:

  • Known Unknowns: all the things you know you don't know.
  • Unknown Unknowns: all the things you don't know you don't know
  • Errors: all the things you think you know but don't
  • Unknown Knowns: all the things you don't know you know
  • Taboos: dangerous, polluting or forbidden knowledge
  • Denials: all the things too painful to know, so you don't

�as you see, it goes rather beyond my little model.

[acknowledgements to Perkins D (2009) Making Learning Whole: how seven principles of teaching can transform education  San Francisco; Jossey Bass p 241 for the link.]


Many thanks to Dan A Wilson, a retired professor of linguistics, who emailed to point out that the greatest body of material that we don't know that we know is the language we use so proficiently:

"Much of what we know, we know we know. Much of what we don't know we know we don't know. Less obvious to most people is that there are things we don't know that we don't know we don't know (laughter followed Rumsfeld's reference to that important category). Least obvious to most people is that there are things we know that we don't know we know.

Linguistics is about the last: the language systems we have mastered, usually as small children. People are generally completely unaware of the complex sets of rules, components, features, and interrelationships they came to know when they acquired a language. The complexity of any human language is, in fact, so great that no human, let alone a mere toddler, could learn one (and many learn more than one), if it were not for the hard-wired templates for language in human brains; templates that don't exist at all in the other animals; templates that let a child acquire the language of any community she is born into, without overt instruction in the system of that language, and without even any any conscious notion that there IS such a system to be acquired."  

(4 July 2013)

Ref: WOODWARD B (2004) Plan of Attack New York; Simon and Schuster [Back]

(updated 8 July 2013)

To reference this page copy and paste the text below:

Atherton J S (2013) Doceo; [On-line: UK] retrieved from

Original material by James Atherton: last up-dated overall 10 February 2013

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