I don't know it

03 Aug 2013

Bret Victor released a talk recently that is really worth watching. Go watch it now I’ll be here when you get back. In fact if you watch it, think about it, and forget to come back I am happy too.

Aside from this talk being really enjoyable because it was wonderfully designed and performed. Aside from this talk being really depressing because of it being able to be so meaningful at this time. It had a great lesson that we can’t be reminded of too much.

When I was still in academics I used to tell the students, and most especially the PhD students, that the most important thing to learn was that you didn’t know anything. At least once I succeeded in getting this message across.

I did a reading course with an undergraduate student. He had wanted to take the graduate course I was teaching on the subject, but suspecting he might not be ready I suggested this more managed form. It turned out this more managed form was not managed enough, and it became a frustrating semester. At various times I tried to convince the student that his approach was not working. My failure at convincing him of this seemed complete.

So far this story can apply in broad strokes to several students I have worked with. This situation was different by me running into the student a year later and him stopping me to tell me he now understood. He was now taking some basic graduate classes (which in the US have lots of structure to them) and that context helped him understand what I had been trying to tell him (his words).

We have lost contact so I don’t know how the story really finishes, but getting that kind of feedback made me very happy. It is often hard to tell how well or poorly you are doing while teaching.

Getting the message across to other people is one thing; getting it across to yourself is another. The title of this post is one of the rules I try to live by “I don’t know it”. If you don’t know it, it is alright to ask lots of questions, it is alright to spend more time on something than originally imagined, and it is alright to fail.

To rationally know something, and to really act on it are two different things. Bret Victor’s talk was to me a great reminder about how good it is to not know it.