You Can’t Know Everything About Everything

I had a striking reminder of my ignorance on Sunday.

I’m currently in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico to give the keynote at a conference tomorrow. I arrived a few days early to get acclimated, and on Sunday, my hosts took me around town, including a visit to the new Museo de la Revolucion en la Frontera. The museum was great, and I learned a lot.

At one point, we were invited in to watch a puppet show that the Museum was staging for the kids there that day. We watched a bit of, but even though the puppets used a vocabulary fit for kids, very little of it overlapped with 40 words of Spanish that I know. And while I watched the show, I realized that most of the 6 year olds in the audience probably knew a whole lot more about the Mexican Revolution than I did. That’s when I was feeling fairly ignorant.

As I thought about it more, I realized that when I was growing up, I thought I could know everything about everything. As I’ve got older though, I know that’s impossible. Now I hope that I can know enough about some things.

In terms of learning Spanish, my 40 words do a reasonably good job of getting me around on a day to day basis. And I can’t learn the whole language because then I would have to skip learning something else. The window for learning Spanish (for me at least) was back when I was in junior high and we had to take a language class.

The case of the Mexican Revolution is more interesting. I knew some basic facts, but not much else. So I learned as much as I could from the Museum. Then I did some more research. And on the following day I asked a few people from Juarez about it, and was able to have some reasonably sophisticated discussions about causes and outcomes, the current state of politics here.

I had gotten to the point where while I didn’t know everything about the Revolution, I knew enough.

This raises an important point for education. We often get caught up in learning facts. Facts are the easy part.

These days, a lot of people don’t worry about facts, but they want higher education to provide people with the work skills that they need in whatever job they will have once they graduate. Learning skills is better than learning facts. But at the same time, most of the people currently enrolled in universities will have jobs in the near future that don’t exist right now. How can we train them for these?

We can’t. Instead, we have to help people build the skills they need to acquire new skills. They need to learn how to learn.

In discussing my recent post on powerpoint, Neil Kay wrote to me that when he’s teaching, he wants people to know that knowledge is contingent.

That’s a very important point, and one that we lose sight of if we focus too much on teaching facts and skills.

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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7 thoughts on “You Can’t Know Everything About Everything

  1. Bienvenido a México, Amigo! Juárez is a neat town, if not sullied by the narcos and US media of late. Back when we lived in El Paso, we regularly walked over to spend a day shopping and whatnot. Enjoy the carne asada and cerveza!

    Do you notice yourself thinking about all the people you know in the States, how we are now so relatively close to your location that it almost seems reasonable to look into hiring a car and meeting up with some of us in person? Happened to me in Germany. Isn’t interesting how our perspectives change like that?

    Learning facts vs. skills is also interesting, in that it seems there is a desire in the business community to focus on results over processes these days. It’s as if the two don’t really match up as well as they should, which might explain quite a bit of cognitive dissonance.

    I can see WHY we should engage in process (skill)-based learning, but HOW do we get those skills and processes to better match up?

    Good food for thought today, señor.

  2. Hola Brian! I did think about visiting people, though I have few connections down in this part of the country. The other perspective change is that even though I’ve been within 2 miles of the US border for most of my stay here, it still seems like another world.

    Your HOW question is a good one, and I don’t have a great answer for it at the moment…

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