The Measure of Our Own

Featured Image Credit: Alberto Ramírez Sobrino on Pexels

How many of you, I wonder, wear shoes that fit. No need to raise hands, but just now consider, “Yes or No… I’m wearing shoes that fit.”

As you consider this about yourself, ask as well whether you’re thinking not solely of your shoes but also of your feet.

This is an illustration of the way to think as a teacher: always holding more than one idea in mind at the same time. For most teachers, there’s typically even three or more ideas to keep in mind, but two will do for now, or perhaps better just to say, “For now, more than one.”

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.

(F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1936, “The Crack-Up”)

And why say anything at all? Because suspending our judgment helps prevent leaping to conclusions, which inescapably leaves someone out, and leaving someone out is anathema to teachers, literally the opposite of good teaching. Leaving people out is politics.

Reflective thinking, in short, means judgment suspended during further inquiry; and suspense is likely to be somewhat painful… the most important factor in the training of good mental habits consists in acquiring the attitude of suspended conclusion, and in mastering the various methods of searching for new materials to corroborate or to refute the first suggestions that occur. To maintain the state of doubt and to carry on systematic and protracted inquiry ― these are the essentials of thinking.

(John Dewey, 1910, p. 13, ‘How We Think’)

The point to stress, beyond keeping in mind more than one idea at a time, is the sense of what we value – that sense of what ‘fits’ – which is to say no longer simply the shoes or the feet contained inside them, but what most appropriately suits in their coming together. In assessing ‘appropriate’ value, that sense of what ‘fits’, we weigh more than any single consideration – even when we don’t recognise them all: we lump more than one consideration together and treat them as ‘one’ consideration, like a kind of rational shorthand. When asked about the fit of our shoes, we may think shoes, we may think feet, or we may think distinctly both at once. The point to stress is that shorthand is subtle enough to go undetected.

Image Credit: Erin Li on Pexels

The point to heed is that talk about ‘fit’ is talk about more than just the assessment of our satisfaction or frustration – our emotions. Any satisfaction or frustration we feel about the fit of our shoes will have arisen from that pair of shoes, now bought and paid for – and buyer beware! So as we feel those emotions, let’s heed how they arise from an empirical objectivity: “I paid $200 for these blasted things – and look at these blisters!”

Money, foot care, bandaids, a trip to the pharmacy, maybe a trip back to the shoe store… even if tangentially, then still no less materially, all these considerations plus how-many-others will factor in to our satisfaction or frustration, our emotional approval or disapproval, of the fit of our shoes – what better measure or evidence, what better empirical objectivity, for assessing the fit of our shoes than a blister on the back of our heel?

The fit of shoes is a congruous match-up of size and shape, the shoes and the feet that wear them. It’s something any good sales person comes to learn over time: as much as you must know your product – available in these shapes and sizes – you must also come to know people because customers also come in all imaginable shapes and sizes, and unimaginable ones, too – did you know the same person might have two differently sized feet? What on earth to do then!

Image Credit: Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

In the same way we might consider feet while we consider the fit of shoes, let’s now put on our teacher hats and consider what makes an appropriate learning environment for young people. For starters, count how many things we’re now bringing to consideration… at the very least, I count two:

• learning environments, and
• young people

… and what else?

I’m sure we would all share similar feelings about the fit of a poor learning environment for young people. So, as we put on those teacher hats and consider what makes for an appropriate learning environment for young people, zero-in on that word, ‘appropriate’, and ask yourself what informs it… its prescription, its sense of value. Ask yourself, “Beyond what I value, what I say ‘fits’, what is my source of that value?”

Image Credit: Belinda Fewings on Unsplash

I’m pretty sure we could eventually reach some consensus on the empirical objectivity of an appropriate learning environment for young people although I hesitate to suggest what that consensus might actually be. But while we decided, what exactly would account for our initial reactions? What would we lump together in shorthand, and what could we factor in to more considered measure?

It’s as if to say of young people and learning environments, both at once, that each one doesn’t just stir its own reaction within us; rather, together they prompt a reaction within us, on account of something about each one of them, something not just worthy but something that warrants our appreciation: young people, for instance, evoke from us emotions like humility and compassion, on account of their vulnerability; and learning environments provoke emotions of respect and approval, on account of their helpfulness.

Image Credit: CDC on Unsplash

So ask yourself… what empirical objectivity arises from this combination of young people on the one hand and learning environments on the other: in their coming together, what is it that makes us so certain? And beyond mere nature, how do we measure – how do we know – what’s most appropriate… almost as if to ask, “What does each one deserve?” And, in between ‘what each one deserves’, how do we not simply describe but also account for what’s most ‘appropriate’?

Before blisters and complaining and asking for our money back, before even spending as much as one thin dime, how do we know if the shoe fits?

Know Don’t Know

Someone is bound to criticise this post for proceeding from an assumption of time as a spatial trajectory, e.g. “you are here,” which comprises a second-person present tense conjugation (“are”) and an adverb (“here”) that measures its principal description from a “present location.

As mentioned in the post below, the KDK model was a handy tool for high school English – something to smirk at, to quote this blog’s front page – and not some philosophical masterstroke or an imposition of supreme will. Even if it were, it wouldn’t matter – the truth is, for all the hits this blog gets, Google Analytics probably just tallies them on coffee break. At least, that’s what I would do, full disclosure.

For the record, I do consider an alternative perspective of time here and here.

One more go at critiquing the bid to “eliminate your bias.”

… got the T-shirt to prove it

First, though, because context is everything, a brief lowdown on the KDK Matrix and its forerunner, the ‘Johari Window’…

I. The Original Johari Window

Like mine, maybe your first introduction to this simple yet dynamic 2×2 matrix was back in its heyday: the late-90s conference heuristic, offered by some clever presenter to facilitate self- and group-awareness.

The Johari Window is named for the two psychologists, Joseph Luft and Harrington Ingham, who devised it in 1955. Luft and Ingham’s original objective was “to examine our behaviour in relation to others” (p. 10) as it derived from a presumed “commitment to a philosophy of interpersonal consultation” (p. 20). Their work built in part upon that of social psychologist, Kurt Lewin, whose preceding development of field theory detailed the study of individual behaviour in social contexts.

The Johari Window
Image Credit w:User:Simon Shek –, Public Domain,

Of course, people have since derived other versions… a Nohari Window, to compare specifically negative traits, and a more abstract study of (principally parenting) relationships that falls under the banner of Meta-Emotion.

And I adapted the Johari Window, too, by revising and rearranging its four defining conditions for a heuristic to suit the coursework I taught in my classroom: the Know-Don’t Know Matrix.

II. The Know-Don’t Know Matrix

First of all… no, it’s not real life. It’s a diagram. So, no, it doesn’t exactly reflect the living and learning it attempts to describe – no analogy could, not exactly. Then, lucky for us, analogies are as instructive for what they can’t offer as what they can: of this one, as any, make what you will.

The descriptions below are hardly exhaustive, much less definitive. They’re simply the way students and I came to understand our adaptation while applying it together during coursework. But I have made one substantive update here to our earlier model, maybe because I’m a wee bit older now, myself: I’ve added reverse-arrows that point back from education, experience, and the present moment (“you are here”) to represent reflection, memory, and the concept at issue, bias.

The quadrants are numbered as we read… across from left to right, then down:

– QI: KK (Things that We Know We Know)
– QII: KDK (Things that We Know We Don’t Know)
– QIII: DKK (Things that We Don’t Know We Know)
– QIV: DKDK (Things that We Don’t Know We Don’t Know)

Each description details that quadrant unto itself and only mentions the other three as necessary, so for a concerted understanding of the entire model, you’re better off reading all four and gradually piecing them together. I recall one student loosely imagining the dynamic movement of the 2D arrows as “living” and the whole model of lines and words as “life” – and really, what better example do you need of making what you will from an instructive analogy.

As with us back in the classroom, the aim here is to get people thinking. So if something stands out as particularly egregious or in need of considered revision, please let me know.

Quadrant I: Things that We Know We Know

Without getting philosophical, we might label QI as Awareness or Knowledge. Whatever we call it, let’s consider QI as representing everyday life and living, where we spend our waking hours.

As we travel life’s tangents, we might think of ourselves as encroaching ever further into Quadrants II and III, and thereby Quadrant IV. How intentionally we pursue education into QII or endure the arrival of QIII’s experience will vary. In fact, though, our general cultural ambition is, and has been, to encroach as much as possible before we die. Another way to put it is that we’re trying to make QI as large as possible throughout our lives.

Meanwhile, in proceeding from birth (“you are born”) to this present moment (“you are here”), throughout that totality of life lived so far, each of us can claim that we have come from somewhere in the past and, further, that we stand somewhere – someplace – at the present moment. Any ‘present moment’ we might call our setting, and whether that’s the English class version of setting as time and place or the Cuisinart version of setting as Lo-Med-Hi, either way, let’s consider it our bias, attributable to our past. Sometimes, this look back from the present moment is called an education or experience, but in keeping with an intended dynamism, I’m describing education and experience as our looking ahead, countered by the looking back of reflection and memory.

What propels us down each tangent differs: education – or so-called ‘book smarts’ – is an intentional effort that takes place over the passage of time, usually (though not entirely) as some kind of formal schooling. These days, the broader objective of education is sometimes utilitarian or, more popular recently, pragmatic. Whatever the basis, though, the aim of education is commonly (though not exclusively) some kind of applicable objective, such as in answer to the question, “What do you do?”

As for experience – so-called ‘street smarts’ – of course, we all make plans most days, things to do. But with the passing of time, experience just seems to arrive on the doorstep, sometimes regardless of intention or even in spite of our best efforts! Conspiring with that cheerful reality are the joys of ageing, and in this more passive way, maybe experience is better understood from a teleological perspective, as having not objectives but outcomes, which are not necessarily intentional. You can grasp this ambiguity from our cultural bumper stickers, like the optimistic “Wheel of Fortune,” the weary “Been There, Done That,” and the fatalist “It Is What It Is.”

We’re often encouraged, living day-to-day, to be content in the present, to live in the moment. For me, as long as we balance some grasp on looking back with a desire for looking ahead, this seems like pretty sound advice.

Quadrant II: Things that We Know We Don’t Know

We might label QII as Curiosity or Room to Grow or even Motivation. Anyway, let’s consider it representing the objectives we have while seeking to learn something as yet unlearned.

Labelling QII as Unawareness or Ignorance might seem straightforward. But these words are misleading for being passive, for suggesting that what’s unknown is off the radar screen, and this is not what QII represents. QII represents things that we’re well aware we know nothing about – I know nothing about rocket science or, for that matter, brain surgery. As such, QII advancement is the result of intention and effort, and QII outcomes are the consequence of education, whether formal schooling or something more casual. In fact, Unawareness or Ignorance might better suit QIII although neither QII nor QIII is a true opposite to QI.

One inescapable demand of QII is the passage of time. On the model, this is suggested by the dashed arrow that points back from “education” to indicate the ad nauseam reflection that students are asked to do, whether they want to or not. One obviously cannot reflect until the focus is in the past.

Quadrant III: Things that We Don’t Know We Know

A suitable label for QIII might be Latency or Potential, representing an open-minded attitude that’s willing to discover things. QIII can incite potent ambition, like that sixth sense when something just clicks and ideas just start to flow.

Yet not everyone’s so predisposed, particularly if we’ve been dragged into something kicking and screaming – meanwhile, what are things that we don’t know we know if not Unawareness or Ignorance, or maybe Indifference. However, besides these QIII can incite discomfort and anxiety. I suppose this is only natural since we’re not always so able or willing to face what we encounter, and fair enough that QIII can be as much a rude awakening as a pleasant surprise. If crystal balls ever went on sale, probably everybody would get one.

The bottom line for QIII, I suppose, is simply to grow from having logged an experience at all as compared to realising some worthwhile take-away. What this means for QIII, as with QII, is an acknowledgement of the passing of time. This is represented on the model by the dashed arrow, pointing back from “memory,” which doubles as the arrival of the rest of the world into our life, whether we wanted it there or not.

Quadrant IV: Things that We Don’t Know We Don’t Know

The best label for QIV is probably Oblivious, and let’s consider it representing, well, everything. Someone’s bound to raise objection: “… but how could we even know?” – right, well, need I say more? Let’s grant more positive recognition of QIV to those humble Socratics who willingly offer their admission that “the more I learn, the less I know.”

On the model, all the arrows and lines are drawn to separate what is known and finite in QI from the infinite void that comprises QIV. As someone might shine a light towards the darkness – or even right into it – even so, QIV (which actually includes QII and QIII) is not a place we can dwell until we get there, at which time we’re probably better off saying we’ve enlarged QI.

Toeing this edge of things that we don’t know we don’t know fuels the curiosity of QII and impels the anxiety of QIII. Yet as we only live next to QIV, here in QI, we risk drifting or dwelling beyond that liminal space before ever getting there. Elsewhere, I’ve called this the Fantasyland of Should, and I’ve found it’s a popular place among young people, probably because the forward-arrow is so long. But dwelling in QIV doesn’t have to be so judgmental; it can also be the Dreamland of Wish, where it makes no difference who you are.

Whatever to call it, though… beyond leaving us feeling motivated or potent, wistful or uneasy, QIV may simply leave us feeling flat-out disordered and lost, displacing anything we’d otherwise experience in that precise moment, the longer we stay there. In the same way, looking back instead of forward, QIV can entice us away from reflecting upon learning or recalling experiences so much that we end up dwelling in the past, which again distracts us from the present moment, the longer we linger there.

In fairness to many generations across many cultures… as distinct from fantasies and dreams, QIV is the Spirit-filled Land of Faith, perhaps even more certain as a setting than here-and-now QI. But whatever QIV means to anyone, one indisputable fact remains – without getting philosophical – about where we exist at the confluence of time-and-place, of self + education + experience. That spot on the model labelled ‘you are here’, where all four quadrants connect: that is this very moment, right now, every time and place it happens.

III. So What?all that We Know

With the model’s components now at least a little clearer, let’s consider why any of this matters, such as how it might be of any use. Recall my aim is to critique the ill-conceived nonsense about “eliminating your bias.”

To keep things simple, I focus principally on QI and QIV, the latter of which subsumes QII and QIII.

As we live, we travel a tangent between life experience and formal education, such that we’re forever encroaching further and deeper into boundless QIV, Things that We Don’t Know We Don’t Know (DKDK). Because DKDK is infinite, the further we go, the more that infinity affirms itself to us – the aforementioned Socratic paradox: ‘The more I learn, the more I don’t know’. As noted, this can be an intimidating confrontation. Or it can be a confidence booster because, yes, we can definitely expand our own knowledge when there’s an unlimited amount of knowledge to tap. By the way, unless you agree with the previous sentence, the question I’m about to pose will make no sense, so here they are together:

We can definitely expand our own knowledge when there’s an unlimited amount of knowledge to tap, yet what expanse of knowledge even makes sense to conceive, much less aspire toward, if our finite capacity is measured against an infinite one?

At first, this may seem like no distinction, but bear with it. For starters, here I am calling our capacities finite, at least by connotation if not precisely by definition. I think we’re better off to presume our capacities finite than to assume with imprudence their limitlessness – it’s too late not to spill milk when the glass is overflowing.

So this frames the problem I have with the perspective that claims, ‘Our bias is our limitation’. From this perspective, we have infinite capacity if – somehow – we just overcome our limits, eliminate our bias. But for the ambitious sojourner, who traverses ever further, ever deeper along DKDK’s infinite tangent, where the only promise ahead is to imagine and make things up in that oblivion of darkness… how frequently their gaze must be looking backward upon itself as the reference point for anything tangible, back upon their pesky limiting bias, from which their travel is meant to detach. I just can’t help feeling this backs-turned approach risks going wayward for being misguided, if not also asking for trouble.

Along the way, sure, constant reminders keep our sojourner aware of what’s ‘behind’ them, i.e. of what’s literally ahead of them along the tangent into DKDK – if only they’d turn from their bias to see forward a little more, and see… what? apart from the void of the vast unknown. With this perspective, ‘Our bias is our limitation’, our sojourner aspires not to move their boundary stones but to eliminate them and, so doing, to satiate some never-to-be-filled-to-the-brim ‘potential’? of theirs – like I said, capacity no longer seems the right word, but surely no one believes themselves to be infinite. Only hubris could back this up. How about we give an ‘A’ for effort… but even then, I’m pretty sure an ‘A’ for effort was nothing Daedalus ever considered while watching Icarus drown.

Someone says, “This perspective is admirable for encouraging learning and growth and improvement!” And limitless potential says, “You can be anything you want to be!” and so forth blah blah etc, and then, just to underscore your inadequacy, self-righteousness says, “Don’t tell me you’re honestly into stomping children’s dreams – don’t be that guy.”

Yet looking backward for tangibility, even if this can be anything more than a self-regarding perspective, even so looking back always at least sustains a self-regarding perspective: how am I doing? what’s my bias now? where am I this moment? Granted, looking back can and will also look ahead, but not with the certainty that accompanies looking back. In that imbalance, favouring what’s behind in spite of aspiring to progress that leaves it all behind, in that contradiction I see avoidable and therefore foolish error.

Indeed, how could someone decide to eliminate or overcome their own bias, especially as it grows with ‘limitless potential’, unless by some continual effort at the very same time to be assessing it… in order to eliminate it? …every time they add to it. There’s freedom in this? Indeed, there is no negative freedom, i.e. ‘freedom from’ bias. There’s only more bias. It literally seems futile, and kind of stupid, to be undoing all the work at the same time you’re doing it. At that ’90s conference, the presenter might have said we’re landing the plane while flying it.

There is no negative ‘freedom from’ bias. There’s only more bias, and it seems kind of stupid to be undoing all the work at the same time you’re doing it.

I prefer another perspective, ‘Our limitation is our bias’, which is more than just witless gainsaying. From this perspective, our sojourner directs their gaze not back the way they came but forward along the same tangent they travel. While looking forward, up, down, to the left, to the right, and sure, sometimes backwards too… as they do all this, they’re aware (QI KK) of their widening capabilities, understood inversely as reduced personal limitations. Maybe let’s call this growth. And maybe you’re now spotting a nuanced aspect of relativity at play here.

With the passing of time, traversing ever further, ever deeper into DKDK, our sojourner’s capabilities do grow. Why I prefer the second perspective is the nuance that neither ‘growth’ nor its corollary, ‘shrinking’, have any meaning when their measure is infinite. What makes the second perspective worthy is not that it encourages learning and growth and improvement for their own sake, i.e. let’s become a bigger, better, somehow less-biased self: this ambition describes the first perspective, ‘Our bias is our limitation’. No, why I prefer the second perspective, ‘Our limitation is our bias’, is because it encourages a willingness to learn and grow and improve for the sake of all that can be learned, i.e. let’s go explore something bigger than and other than ‘self’. For looking forward, not backward, outward, not inward, the second perspective has a motive of curiosity: inquisitive, a little adventurous, a little sceptical – like Socratic humility, open to whatever comes along.

Such an attitude has neither to eliminate nor preclude the bias it has developed since starting out. Along the journey, such an attitude might fairly take up a decision to grasp something encountered as entirely and valuably new. In fact, such an attitude might even hang onto its original bias in order to understand and appreciate and measure anything new as real growth. And if this compares to the first perspective for bias being a tangible measure, it contrasts with the first perspective for bias being an intentional value. What the second perspective offers is a far more appealing alternative: a positive freedom, the ‘freedom to’ be and become ourselves. To let go, to get out from under shelter, to risk a little vulnerability, and in growing a little bigger than before, to still appreciate ‘self’ along the way. Not just self, but ‘self’, which is another nuance the first perspective can’t claim.

When our time and attention are spent looking back upon ourselves, we risk missing out on what we encounter. When we embrace our bias as our limitation, our time and attention are spent looking forward, and ‘self’ can be conceived and appreciated rather than aggrandized. When we embrace our bias, and actively include it on our tangents, we don’t merely allow ourselves a chance to broaden horizons, we enable ourselves to transect them.

The Force May Be With You

Elsewhere, I’ve discussed a threefold conceptualisation of time:

  • chronos, the ticking clock of linear time
  • kairos, the fleeting moment, a singular point in time
  • aion, boundless or infinite, “the fulfillment of time” (Baumlin, p. 155)
Image by Gustavo Rezende from Pixabay

Baumlin offers an image for aion, the uroboros, which is paradoxical for being finite, the serpent swallowing its tail. In concert, he suggests, these three concepts comprise a “spatial-temporal sequence… from point, to line, to circle” (p. 155) that can seem both time and place, what we might call setting, which is a curious way to consider eternity.

Into this setting we’re born to live and die, and if that seems a bit morbid, then let’s turn to something more uplifting, like Hannah Arendt, who wrote that people “are not born in order to die but in order to begin” (Arendt, p. 246). Death would be the end of us except that each new generation comes along, not only to sustain and maintain but also to begin anew. Birth interrupts death and renews the world.

At birth, Arendt suggests, we arrive into a world already underway, a kairos moment in chronos time. Growing up with parents, surrounded by culture, we come to feel somewhat defined by this world that precedes us, by what has been carried forward from the past. Arendt calls this our belatedness and then, pointing bluntly to education, poses an alternative that she calls our natality. As part of the world underway, our belatedness can be outweighed by the promise of natality, an encouragement to look toward the future at our potential to be something more, something different.

Of course, like any application, details lie in context – time and place, the people involved. What is potential for some is conflict for others, or maybe impossible. Set against belatedness, natality can pose a paradox that leaves us feeling discouraged, even paralysed. The force may be with you, but yeah… hard to know, really. Always in motion is the future.

By the same turn, if we’re not encouraged toward the future but simply expected to carry on what’s been brought forward from the past – stifling our potential, frustrating our promise – we may be again left feeling discouraged, or complacent, or in any event dissatisfied, perhaps without even understanding why. Anyone marginalised by such continuance may simply remain that way. Meanwhile, a continual obligation to steward beginnings can come to feel like weary efforts at futility – again, the paradox of natality.

Stewardship of any new arrival to the known world demands a dose of self-awareness and the restraint of long patience – with thanks to Fitzgerald, the capacity to keep in mind two separate ideas while still being able to function.

So, if “our thinking and behaviour are determined by the systemic structure, independent of our particular place in it” (Sarason, p. 29)… even as that singular perspective matters, we need to see beyond mere individuality. And if we’re all part of something larger, more populous, then our coming to know other people can help us begin to appreciate the motives behind their decisions, or at least help us to realise – if we’re honest – that there’s probably more we don’t yet understand. As this accounts for size or scope – something larger, more populous – so it also accounts for time – past, present, future – which is a curious way to consider character and growth and relationships. Maybe that’s why we decided to call it education.

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