The Four Boxes of Knowing

While reading David Weinberger’s latest book Too Big To Know:  Rethinking Knowledge Now that the Facts Aren’t the Facts, Experts are Everywhere, and the Smartest Person in the Room is the Room, I was reminded of the Four Boxes of Knowing.  At this point, I have no idea where I came across the framework or how I’ve modified it over the years.

One of my favorite exercises when teaching or facilitating a consulting session is to change directions and have some “fun” with the four boxes of knowing exercise.

I start out by describing the three boxes of knowing:

  • What you know?
  • What you know that you don’t know?
  • What you don’t know that you don’t know?

Then I ask “in this context, what is the fourth box of knowing?”

Of course, everyone goes directly to trying to add a larger fourth box to surround the other three and do the continued extension to the absurd of “what you don’t know that you don’t know that you don’t know ..”

After teasing out some more ideas, I draw in the smaller fourth box – what you think you know that is wrong.

As we all have a good laugh, I then ask for what are the system dynamics of learning something new?

This question if I am patient enough leads to an engaging discussion.  Soon someone will provide the insight “as your box of ‘what you know’ grows larger, the other boxes grow exponentially larger.  It’s a never ending virtuous process.”

I then have the audience spend 5-10 minutes drawing the boxes and in the context of the subject of the class or consulting engagement, place elements of knowledge in each of the boxes.  Most of the audience can pretty quickly fill in the “what you know” and “what you don’t know boxes” but of course have a difficult time filling out the “what you don’t know you don’t know.”  I suggest that the class speculate on what might be in that third box.

After working quietly for a few minutes, the class shares their results.

What a wonderful time it is to see the “wisdom of the crowd” show up as the participants realize that what they don’t know is known by somebody else in the audience and vice versa.

However, the real learning comes from the “speculations” that are in the largest box.  The blind spots of knowledge for the group show up in this last box.

What are your speculations about “what you don’t know you don’t know?”

This entry was posted in Knowledge Management, Learning, Teaching, Working in teams, WUKID. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The Four Boxes of Knowing

  1. Pingback: What if what we know is wrong? | On the Way to Somewhere Else

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  4. Jonny says:

    Surely once you discover something you didn’t know you didn’t know (largest box) you then know you don’t know it, so it goes straight into the second box? It’s only in the largest box if you are not aware of it?

  5. Albert Ainuu says:

    Its not we dont know but we cant remember and knowledge is like becoming reaquainted with an old friend who you havent seen for decades. It all comes back to you. I believe we already know what we should know, but the mind is only now getting it verified. Which is why we are good at some subjects and not others, because we are familiar with these topics either through genetics, our ancestors passed this information to us through DNA or through inspiration from God,

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