Introduction: Why are some people so good at figuring things out on their own?

Have you ever met people who are so good at asking questions in class? Or have you met people who are so good at Googling for answers online, that they can always find resources that you yourself have never been able to find? Have you met people who are just so good at figuring things out on their own, especially when they are tasked with things that they have never done before? Why is it that some remain clueless or helpless, while others just seem to know what to do?

Are they born with it as an innate ability? Or is this something that can be taught and learnt?


1. The Word of the Day is: Metacognition!

Rather than to keep you in an air of mystery, let me give the game away and say: this module is about enhancing your metacognitive abilities.

Meta- what? What’s metacognition?

Metacognition is a higher-order level of thinking. It isn’t just about thinking – it’s thinking about the way we think, questioning the way we question. It’s a reflective process of being aware of the way we question and develop answers, and be able to critique and improve on that process.

What can we do with it? Is it edible?

Well, the whole point of questioning is to seek answers, whether it is to increase our knowledge or to help us solve problems. But let me explain four categories of knowing that can help or interfere with our question-seeking process.

(1) I know that I know (a.k.a. known knowns). These are things that we are aware of. We can turn to what we know to solve problems, or build up on them to gain new insights. So far so good.

(2) I know that I don’t know (a.k.a. known unknowns). This category is vital for questioning. When we are aware of what we don’t know, we can ask for help, or we can Google for answers. Most importantly, this is vital for questioning.

(3) I don’t know that I don’t know (a.k.a. unknown unknowns). This is the scary one. Whether it’s learning something new, or when someone assigns you a major task that you’ve never done before. Part of why we sometimes feel so helpless is precisely because we don’t know what we are unaware of, and thus we can’t ask a question, seek help, or even Google for answers.

A person with high metacognitive abilities appears to know how to figure things out by him/herself simply because he/she possesses the abilities to transform something from “I don’t know that I don’t know” into “I know that I don’t know,” and is thus able to slowly figure things out.

If you thought “I don’t know that I don’t know,” is scary, there’s a fourth one that is quite devious:

(4) I don’t know that I know (a.k.a. unknown knowns). This refers to a category of things that we really should know but are unaware either because we are blinded by bias or by the perspective from which we are examining an issue, or because we refuse to want to know (again, because of some bias), thinking it could never happen, or because we’re so insistent that it should be something else instead.

Everyone, including the most learned individuals with high metacognitive abilities, can fall prey to “I don’t know that I know.” And so, while it is important to have the metacognitive abilities to convert “I don’t know that I know” into “I know that I know,” this category of knowing requires extra vigilance.

This course is focused on enhancing our metacognitive abilities to deal with “I don’t know that I don’t know,” and “I don’t know that I know,” turning these unknowns into a known that we can first identify, and then be able to deal with.

It is essentially for this reason that we need to reflect and critique on our own questioning processes to detect areas of blindness (for unknown knowns) and to acquire new methods outside what we’re already comfortable doing to detect the unknown unknowns.

One way to vastly improve our metacognitive abilities is to expose ourselves to a wide variety of processes of inquiry and problem-solving methods to either supplement or complement whatever processes we currently have.

However, a sceptic might respond to this and say: “What’s the point of learning additional processes of questioning when my method works perfectly fine? Why not just focus on the questioning process that I already have?”


2. The Danger of Learning to Only Use a Hammer

Let me begin with a beautiful quotation:

A carpenter trained to use a hammer sees every problem as a nail.

– Abraham Maslow (1962)

These days, university education places a great emphasis on specialisation. If you wanted to specialise as a sociologist, you’d major in sociology. If you wanted to specialise as a mechanical engineer, you’d major in mechanical engineering. And those four years of your undergraduate experience will shape you and form you, slowly but surely, into a brilliant specialist in that field.

A specialist is a specialist because he/she is fantastic at asking great and profound questions about that specific field. But, like the carpenter in Maslow’s quote, the danger of specialisation is that it can trap us into a fixed mode of questioning. Engineers can’t help but to see every problem in the world as an engineering problem, and see engineering as the solution. Economists can’t help but to see every problem in the world as an economics problem, and they too see economics as the solution. Even for myself, as a philosopher, I can’t help but to see every problem around me as a philosophical problem requiring a philosophical solution. 

As one trained in Chinese philosophy, allow me to cite a favourite passage of mine that best illustrates this point:

You cannot discuss The Way with a scholar: for he is shackled by what he has learnt.

(Zhuangzi, “Autumn Floods,” Chapter 17; translation mine)

You’ve probably heard the saying, “Scientia potentia est,” or, “Knowledge is power.” So it might seem rather strange that what we learn can be limiting rather than empowering. But that is the downside of a specialist education: we become enslaved, chained down as it were, by the questioning processes and problem-solving methods of our education.

If we are not aware of this, if we do not expose and familiarise ourselves with other processes and methods of inquiry and problem-solving, this can be a problem. How are we able to critique our own thought processes and methods to uncover our own methodological blindspots, if we have nothing else to compare it with? Where can we turn to for insights if we have no alternative modes of reference?


3. The Solution is a Conceptual Toolkit

One way to enhance your metacognitive abilities is to simply expose you to the various questioning methods and processes employed by various disciplines. Not only will I be exposing you to the various disciplinary modes of questioning, but I will also teach you to recognise and use these conceptual tools that each discipline employs.

Again, a sceptic might intervene to object, saying: “Wait a minute, how is that even useful? The way each discipline questions is so different, it’s not possible to even teach a general skill of questioning or to generally enhance every one’s questioning abilities.”

That sounds reasonable. After all, a financial analyst is able to ask very good questions about financial markets, which I – a non-expert in finance – will never be able to ask. Questioning is unique. It’s a reflection of who we are, what we know, and our own personal experiences with that subject.

Yet, if the sceptic were indeed right, how then are people from different disciplines able to collaborate on a project together? Here, we might be conflating content knowledge with questioning processes. Imagine a situation where a professor of art collaborates with a professor of electrical engineering. At the beginning, the art professor may not be able to ask a question simply because he lacks knowledge about electrical engineering. But given a sufficient amount of time to learn, we can reasonable expect that the art professor would be able to ask decent and even profound questions about electrical engineering. In fact, we might reasonably expect the art professor to ask questions relating to aesthetics, yet quite relevant to electrical engineering, which the engineering professor could never ask.

How is this even possible? Well, if we explore the history of all academic disciplines, they all trace back to the Mother of All Disciplines: Philosophy. If you were a person of learning back in ancient times (whether in ancient China, India, or Greece), there was only one subject to study.

Philosophy used to be the study of EVERYTHING, it was the study of ourselves, of people, of things, and of the world around us. It was only in recent centuries (and even recent decades), that we started drawing lines to separate Philosophy from every other discipline. Philosophy gave birth to the Physical Sciences (which then gave birth to Engineering), it gave birth to mathematics (which then gave birth to Computing), and it was Philosophy that gave birth to the Social Sciences (which then gave birth to Psychology, Sociology, and Economics).

Well, to cut the long story short, in sharing with you about the history of academic disciplines, the point I want to make is that the lines separating disciplines are artificial boundaries. While it’s true that some disciplines use a set of questioning tools more than other disciplines, it’s not true that there’s a special set of questioning processes that is reserved to a particular discipline alone. We all possess these questioning processes and we use all of them almost on a day-to-day basis in an almost unconscious manner.

Perhaps, the biggest reason why we may not be so good at using them is because we do not have a name for those processes, and so we remain unaware of the processes that we can consciously use as tools to gain greater and deeper insights. So what I hope to do in this course is not only to expose you to the various modes of disciplinary inquiry, but to also make you aware of specific methods and processes, and  present them to you as conceptual tools to add to your mental toolbox.

Such empowerment begins with an awareness of the tools at our disposal.