You probably remember the quote:

There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.

When it comes to STEM tutoring, test preparation, and contest preparation for especially strong students, this is a shockingly important concept.  After all, strong students know a lot; they know what they know; and they are aware of things that they ought to know but don’t yet.

But typically there are things that they are missing that they don’t even know that they are missing.  And this is where most of the real trouble lies.  I help these students recognize these “unknown unknowns” in their academic lives.

The most common unknown unknown is a deficit in one of three qualities (which some colleagues helped me identify in a previous post): 

  • Fluent: the successful student knows the material and how it all interconnects.
    Otherwise, success is necessarily limited (of course). This category includes not only “I need to study more” but also “I had memorized that fact, but didn’t how it was relevant to this question.”
  • Present: the successful student is fully focused when engaging with the material.
    Otherwise, knowledge doesn’t matter; you’ll still flub it, e.g. by misreading the question, answering a different but related question, making an arithmetic error, doing too much in one’s head rather than on paper… in essence, a forehead-slapper. This is often missing in students who are so fluent that they aren’t used to having to focus 100% of their attention.
  • Bold: the successful student is willing and able to make progress with incomplete information.
    It’s often called creativity, critical reasoning, or problem-solving. But at its core, it’s about reasoning successfully even when some pieces of the puzzle appear to be missing. This is often missing in students who are so fluent that they aren’t used to having anything less than complete information in the first place.

That’s it in a nutshell: to be extremely successful academically, you should aim to be fluent, present, and bold. But most strong students consider any academic issue to be a failure only of fluency, which means they often use the wrong tools for solving their problems.

This can cause extreme frustration, and can threaten both morale and identity.

My diagnostic systems identify gaps in these categories, and my interventions help students build the new habits that bridge these gaps.  This eliminates these frustrating “unknown unknowns” for most students.

I’m glad to finally have a way to easily discuss these issues with students and parents, so that we can all help the student as a cohesive team.