The rise of grok (or how I learned to embrace my ignorance)

A Stranger In A Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein

The economist (Freakonomist?) Steven Levitt says that one of the most destructive factors in business is the inability for people to admit to what they don’t know. He says:

“Whenever I propose that a company run a randomized experiment, almost always there’s tremendous resistance. And the reason is because in order to make a randomized experiment be sensible, it means that you have to start from the premise that we don’t actually know the answer. And the randomized experiment is a way both to test whether what we’ve been doing is correct and also whether there’s another way of doing it better. And people always say, “well why would I run a randomized experiment when I already know the answer?” And consequently the firms never learn anything.”

Now this is where I was just a year or two ago. Not that I thought I knew the answers to everything, but that there were things that I was utterly convinced I knew.

And how did I ‘know’ these things?

I don’t know.

But believe me, I knew I was right. I knew that I could judge an outstanding/good/requires improvement lesson. I knew, at the point of learning, that my pupils were learning. I knew that this or that teaching practice, in which I’d invested lots of time and effort, was effective.

Except I found out that none of that was actually true. I thought I knew the answers, but I’ve since learned that I was way off. I didn’t know the answers. I’ve since been challenged on what I thought I knew and really, they were just beliefs. Beliefs that were also left wanting when held up to the unforgiving light.

The problem is that, in thinking I knew the answers, I told other people those answers too. I’ve led groups on the monolith that is SOLO taxonomy. I’ve taught on ITT courses about new technologies. I’ve been both kingmaker and heartbreaker in dispensing judgements when observing lessons.

Being challenged on what I think I know has made my approach to teaching much more discerning. But the important step I’ve had to take was to embrace my own ignorance. To not allow myself to think that I know the answers, or to assume that the answers I have are right.

Where does this belief that we know the answers come from, if often those answers are wrong? Frequently, when challenged on why we ‘know’ something, the response isn’t based in evidence, rather in a sense of intuition: we just know.

The science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein coined a word for this intuitive ‘knowing’: grok. In his 1961 novel, A Stranger in a Strange Land, he wrote:

“Grok means to understand so thoroughly that the observer becomes a part of the observed—to merge, blend, intermarry, lose identity in group experience. It means almost everything that we mean by religion, philosophy, and science—and it means as little to us (because of our Earthling assumptions) as color means to a blind man.”

As Heinlein points out, the ability to grok – to absolutely know intuitively – is actually beyond Earthlings’ capabilities, it is a faculty particular to the Martian race.


Now I know that in the eyes of most pupils, teachers are an alien race. This is particularly evident if we are spotted in Tesco on a Saturday morning (point, stare, whisper, probe). But I think the belief that we, like Heinlein’s Martians, intuitively grok – we understand unconsciously – is prevalent in schools. And it worries me as to the extent in which grokking informs what we do. I think it pervades a lot of practice in schools. It certainly has informed a lot of my practice in the past.

I’m not entirely denigrating intuition – it is certainly very important in drawing ideas to our attention,  but we are wrong more often than we’d care to admit. (David Didau has written eloquently about it here and here, and I’d strongly advise everyone to read those pieces.)

What is important is that we always detach ourselves from what we think and consider why we think it. We should challenge our own assumptions, rigorously, and embrace our own ignorance. It’s okay not to know the answers. As Steven Levitt says, thinking that we do means that we’ll “never learn anything”.

8 thoughts on “The rise of grok (or how I learned to embrace my ignorance)”

  1. And this is why I keep telling people when they say a research finding is “obvious” that the purpose of research is to distinguish between those things that are obvious and true and those that are obvious and false…

    And this is why, late in my life, I am drawn more and more to the work of people like Friedrich von Hayek who keep on reminding us that we know less than we think we do: “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.” Or as Oscar Wilde put it, “I am not young enough to know everything”.

  2. Wonderful book and well used. Lessons also to be learned from his story “The Tale of the Man Who Was Too Lazy to Fail” via the notion of ‘constructive laziness’ which could be summarised as; thinking smart saves time and makes life easier.

    I started teaching undergraduates about reflective practice with the aim of moving students towards being ‘intuitive practitioners’ I had to put a fair bit of effort into explaining that this does not just mean going with gut feelings but is more about developing expertise in knowing when to dig deeper to check personal beliefs or organisational knowledge/procedure. I now focus more on ‘the fragility of knowing’ and the value of systematic approaches to getting closer to truths – the practice I now promote has similarities to abductive reasoning that examines verisimilitudes to get close to the most likely ‘truth’. Your discussion about your initial conviction of knowing and subsequent overthrowing of what was known relates well to that – what we think of as truth will frequently be just our intuitive guess at a truth and may be very different to others’ versions. Variance between witness statements relating to what happened in a car crash or at crime scenes is a good example of how perceptions of reality can vary.

    Below is an extract from a blog post that provides a framework students use to analyse significant events in their workplaces. This aspect of reflection is often seen as one of the most significant in changing how students view their practice. The steps below are used in conjunction with identifying any mismatch between ‘espoused theory’ (What I believe I should be / am doing) and ‘theory in action’ (what I actually did) it is not always easy to reflect on deeply held beliefs and related behaviours but is so worthwhile.

    1. What do I think happened? Create a first draft personal account based on a ‘let it flow via a stream of consciousness’ approach with no concern about module word limits. Reflection on what you think happened and how you behaved should include reference to personal feelings and your initial perceptions of the feelings and behaviours of others.

    2. What might really have happened? A refined description where personal beliefs and their influence are carefully considered. This may be difficult as the aim is to take a deep honest look inside yourself and uncover potential self deception with the aim of moving towards an unbiased account.

    3. What do others think happened? This might include individual consultation with others who were present as peripheral observers or actually involved in the event. Individual accounts are important in order to avoid gathering political responses adapted to suite others.

    4. Collaborative debate. Dewey was in favour of collaborative reflection but this can be a difficult step. In some circumstances it might not be ethical or sensible to include. It can be valuable to bring together those who were involved and share an overview that provides the group with insight into the range of potential realities. These are then discussed with the aim of agreeing a most likely version of reality.

    At this stage there may be an account that could be proposed as getting close to answering what actually happened. It will still be a map of reality rather than an absolute truth, however; it can be a good basis from which to proceed to identifying how to improve your behaviour should a similar situation arise again.

    5. What else might have been be done? This step is an analysis of all potentially effective options as to how you might have improved how you behaved. Freed from all governing factors the reflective practitioner records a blue sky aspirational exploration of unbounded possibilities.

    6. What else could have be done? Analysis of the findings from the previous step focuses on deciding what the reflective practitioner believes would be best to do out of all the possibilities that were uncovered. This is still a speculative potential action as the only governing variable is the personal belief about what could have been best for those involved in the original event.

    7. What can actually be done now? This aims to make a decision on what is feasible to do within workplace boundaries. These boundaries include factors such as workplace policies, behaviour expectations, institutional visions and aims, accepted norms of behaviour and expected best practice. A solution that has been adapted to fit with factors that govern what can be done in the workplace is developed and articulated in an evidence based format that shows a careful and systematic analysis has been implemented.

    8. What needs to be changed? In an organisation that fits the criteria developed by Senge for being a ‘learning organisation’ those able to plan and implement higher level change will be actively seeking new ideas to improve the current system and will welcome input from all staff. Disruptive innovation solutions that go beyond the current boundaries that govern the workplace might also be welcome. A persuasive evidence based account extending on from step 7 findings can be useful in persuading others that change is to be embraced.

    Obviously such detailed reflection can not be done on every significant event but having done this a few times in detail can raise the value of subsequent ‘in the moment’ reflection and lead to deeper awareness of potential realities and caution about consequent assertions and actions.

    More here:

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