The Paradox of Learning: When We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know

Alright, so let’s talk about the process of learning. When we learn a new subject there are three different kinds of information:

  • The things that we know
  • The things that we know we don’t know
  • The things that we don’t know we don’t know

When we start learning a subject, we always have some basic information. For example, when I started to learn chemistry, I wasn’t sure what redox reactions were, but I did have a basic comprehension of atoms and elements. We also know some things that we do not know. For example, I knew the periodic table was a thing (and I also knew some elements), but I only had a cursory understanding. So, I knew I did not understand the periodic table. And lastly there were things that I had no idea I did not know. For example, I did not know a thing about allotropes. I didn’t even know allotrope was a word.

As you continue to learn, some of the things you didn’t know that you didn’t know become things that you know you don’t know. Then they become things that you know. This is all part of the process. However, there can be some problems in this process, and that is what this post is about.

The Paradox

So, let’s say I want to learn psychology (a field I am not all that familiar with). I would start by finding a psychology resource such as a book or a website. I would make sure that resource had good practice problems and assessments so I could make sure I was learning. Then I would jump into the topic. Going in to the topic, I would have some ideas of what I could learn about. I may think of things such as therapy, the ego, the superego, the subconscious, phobias, and human behaviour.

The next thing I do would be to take the course. As I am learning, I would discover things I had never heard of before, and then I would learn them. During the lessons, I would take notes and then study them to commit them to memory. I would do the practice problems and assessments. If I did not know how to do a particular problem, I would go back to the course and review. I would continue this process until I was done. This is roughly how the process works if everything goes ideally. But, the fact of the matter is that everything does not end up going ideally.

When we try to learn something what often ends up happening is that we are not sure exactly what we need to know. This is because the person teaching you faces a dilemma. Either they can teach you everything and overwhelm you, or they can teach you what they deem to be most important and leave some things out that they hope you end up picking up later. For example, when I was learning physics, my teacher decided to not show us that you could get the potential energy equation from a force equation. Now, I did fine without knowing this fact, but I was always a little confused. But then at the end of the year, I decided to do some practice problems online, and during the problem I saw someone derive a potential energy function. Now, all of the sudden connections formed that had never been there before.

Getting Around the Paradox of Learning

Alright, so how are we going to get around the paradox of learning. Personally, I do not think that you need to do too much extra work in order to avoid this pitfall. However, there are some things that you will need to know first. Typically, we know when we have mastery over a subject or concept. From my experience, when I have mastery over a subject, I am able to solve any problem that involves the material with confidence. Additionally, I find the topic becomes more enjoyable. In contrast, when I do not know a subject I feel like I am going through the motions when problem solving. I also am very confused and frustrated with the material.

As a rule of thumb, if I feel confident with the problem, I don’t need to do any extra work. If I do not feel confident, I study the material more until I understand each concept. If after understanding each concept I am still confused by the problems, then I know that my resource left something out. If I know that my resource is incomplete, I will look into other resources for understanding the material. I may watch free lectures online, or I may read another book on the topic. I particularly look for things that my resource did not cover. Once I spot the things that I did not learn, I focus in on them.

Another way of ensuring you are learning everything about a subject is by using other resources for problems. This, I would particularly recommend for anyone in a standardized curriculum such as an AP class, or those preparing for a standardized test. In these topics, you want to ensure that you are not missing out on any essential information that your teacher left out.

Now, there is another part of the paradox of learning. When working through a resource like a textbook, you are going to be faced with maybe 100 problems each section. There is going to be way more than you realistically need to do. So, if you are using a resource like a textbook, I recommend that you find a course that uses your textbook by googling for a syllabus online. Once you find the syllabus, you can see the mandatory classwork that they do, and then you can follow along. This way, you will maybe only have to do 20 problems a section, and you can also avoid topics that are useless. For example, each chapter in a college level textbook usually will have a section that is obsolete or way out of the scope of what you are learning, so you obviously do not want to waste your time there.

So now that you have all of this information, go out and get learning! Thank you for reading, and if you have any questions, just comment below!

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