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Gordon Dutton’s Blog (13) What can be seen; the knowable unknown

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The knowable unknown

"There are known knowns" is a phrase from a response United States Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld gave to a question at a U.S.Department of Defense (DoD) news briefing on February 12, 2002 about the lack of evidence linking the government of Iraq with the supply of weapons of mass destruction to terrorist groups.

Rumsfeld stated:

Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns - the ones we don't know we don't know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult one.


Yesterday I pressed a key on my computer that led to a fault I'd not seen before and didn't know how to fix.

Searching the Internet, I discovered that others had solved a similar fault in different ways.

I tried the easiest approach and it magically worked after only the first step without needing the next two.

My computer's glitch, and the solution to the problem, could have been unique, but I'd hit lucky!

In developing new aircraft, the aeronautical industry makes new developments that stretch the boundaries of knowledge. This needs great care.

When making changes into the unknown, they can only do so in small steps, into the knowable unknown.

small steps, into the knowable unknownsmall steps, into the knowable unknown

I felt that the small step I'd made in sorting my computer was a similar step...

...but where is this discussion leading?

You've guessed.

The computer of the brain serving vision, our other senses and our understanding is vast, and it can glitch in myriad ways.

This means that the nature of every single child's cerebral visual impairment, for example, is likely to be unique and hitherto unknown, yet knowable.

This means we need open minds. We need to accept that our prior knowledge is only a guide to each new journey of exploration and discovery that we need to make for each child.

We cannot be constrained by past dogma, nor can we use flights of fancy.

We need to journey into the knowable unknown.

For this we need mental tools, as well as the range of prior knowledge available on this website.

For complicated issues I often use the mental tool of sets of three, with sub-sets of three etc.

Here's an example...

...the brain processes information in terms of space, time and quantity.

When it comes to seeing...

  • The space around us is processed by the brain in terms of the area over which we see, (the visual field), the spacing of detail, (the visual acuity), and the amount of detail we can encompass (or parallel process) within that space.
  • The timing of what we are able to see relates to how fast things have to move before they disappear, how many frames of cinema film are needed per second for the moving imagery not to stutter, and the level of distraction during a restaurant conversation that causes our short attention span to not let us notice when people at the next table leave.
  • The quantity of light we are seeing is evident in terms of the difference in brightness between electric lighting and sunshine, in terms of our ability to tell the difference between shades of grey (contrast sensitivity), and in terms of our ability to see stars at night, but not during the day (because in daytime, our eyes are not able to detect the tiny additional amount of starlight).

Each of these mental processes is separate, and for all of us, each is limited.

We can only learn from information that we can see, hear and appreciate, when it is within our limits of perception and understanding. These concepts apply to all our perceptions and how they are processed.

And of course they apply equally to those who see and appreciate differently, with their own unique profiles of seeing and not seeing, hearing and not hearing, and understanding and not understanding.

Yet this information cannot become known unless we seek these profiles out.

This is knowable unknown information.

Such knowledge is pivotal to children's education and learning yet, in my experience, few learning disabled children are thought about in this way.

This may be because learning disability is thought to be a diagnosis. It isn't.

It's effectively a statement of the obvious used for the political purpose of resource allocation, yet, as a label, it does not go below the surface to identify why the child has a disability in learning.

(It's also a good excuse for some not to go the extra mile for the child, because it can be seen as a definitive label, rather than a prompt to look further.)

The profile of how and why a child has difficulty learning, whether the reason is visual, auditory, linguistic, intellectual, behavioural or a combination, comes into the category of the potentially knowable unknown, and so, with careful observation of the child's behaviours - using an entirely open mindset of enquiry - we can all start to think in detail about what is seen and what is not seen, what is heard and what is not heard, and what is understood and what is not understood, and what might be leading to behaviours that are interfering with learning.

But what's the point?

For every child with difficulties learning, we need to open our minds to what the barriers to their learning are.

We need to make the journey of exploration to see and hear through children's eyes and ears, and to think as they do, because this opens our minds to their unique ways of seeing, hearing, understanding and experiencing.

In this way we can come to understand them from inside to out, adopt their 'theory of mind', and use it to best effect.

(If we do not do this, it is we who are, in a sense, 'autistic' - from their perspective - but they have neither the ability nor the licence to give us this label!)

Once we have profiled what can and cannot be perceived and understood, the 'Knowable Unknown' becomes the 'Known'.

We then can't look back, because we have learned new ways of looking, new ways of hearing and new ways of understanding and thinking, which we can use to help liberate children with visual, perceptual and intellectual difficulties, by ensuring their experiences are rendered perceptible, understandable, accessible, meaningful, motivational and fun - and no longer inaccessible.

Understanding and knowledge of each child's profile of perception and understanding, is of course a foundation for better teaching, learning, development and success.


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