Why teachers must go boldly into the 'unknown unknowns'

Do we, as teachers, really think about what the world looks like to someone in a different part of it, asks Helen Wright

brain drain

Heading to Hong Kong last week to coach aspiring co-principals of a dual-language school, I was struck (again) by how important it is to take time – significant time – to look at the world from different perspectives. When we try to walk in other people’s shoes, we learn more about them and how they perceive and understand the world. This is a truism that is – unsurprisingly – actually true. 

What makes this all the more important right now is that we are living in unsettled and unsettling times. World events seem to keep catching us by surprise – a sure-fire indication that there was at least something we didn’t know we didn’t know.

From physical events – the unexpected eruption of the volcano on White Island in New Zealand in December, for example – to human events – including the longevity of the anti-government protests in Hong Kong – the world is full of things that we just didn’t see coming. This doesn’t mean that these events aren’t logical consequences of other events; it simply means that from our perspective on the world, we didn’t think to expect them. To us, they were the "unknown unknowns" made famous in 2002 by then US secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld.

As educators, we can’t know everything – no single human being can – yet our challenge is this: what good are we as educators if we don’t at least figure out how to help our young people come to terms with the "unknown unknowns" of this world in which they have to live (and fight to repair) for longer than we do?

'Unknown unknowns': giving students a global outlook

Not many people know that Donald Rumsfeld was merely bringing to prominence the analysis technique of the Johari window, developed by psychologists Joseph Luft and Harrington Ingham in 1955, whereby our understanding of any situation can be divided into four quadrants:

- Known knowns (known by you and known by others)

- Unknown knowns (known by others, but not by you)

- Known unknowns (known by you but not by others)

- Unknown unknowns (not known by you, and not known by others)

In our own Johari windows – especially as busy teachers and leaders – we are often forced to focus on the "known knowns", ensuring that young people meet certain knowledge and skills targets within short time frames. Most of the curriculum (wherever you are in the world) is also heavily cloaked in a nation-centric understanding of the world, although international schools can usually (but not always) lay a greater claim to a determined visibility of the wider world.

As educators, we also dabble in the "known unknowns" and "unknown knowns", quite rightly encouraging our students to question, research and explore. How often, however – even in international schools – do we ourselves really venture into the "unknown unknowns"?

We are all aware that we live in a global world – connected through digital media, social and economic migration and travel as never before – so it should be easier than ever to explore what we don’t know we don’t know about the world, but – and this is a genuine and challenging question – how much time do we, as educators, really allocate in our own lives to ask ourselves what the world looks like through the eyes of someone living in a different part of it? How open and ready are we to accept the complete unknown?

Taking time to understand others and their perspectives can be easier in situ, away from our daily normality, in another part of the globe, where different air, sounds and smells instantly predispose us to think that the world may have something different to offer us in our understanding of how other people see it.

(This is by no means guaranteed, however – it is perfectly possible to travel in a cocoon of English, selecting Western food from the breakfast buffet, and bouncing off the surface of a culture through sightseeing that has been carefully curated so as not to confront us with too many questions that might undermine our world view. )

If I’ve learned anything from working with international schools for the past six years it is that what really, really matters is our commitment as educators to developing an open, international mindset. Travel is great, but we can connect with the world from our laptop; we just need to be prepared to look deeper than the diet of Western-centric news and tourist recommendations which vie for attention on the first page of a Google search. If I were to suggest one small step to start to build up a greater global awareness, it would be to widen your news feeds, taking in news from the parts of the world about which you are curious. If you are feeling more ambitious, reach out now and connect with people. You can, you know.

French-Cuban writer Anais Nin is reputed to have said: “We don't see things as they are. We see them as we are.” Someone, somewhere, can help us – and our students – to know the unknowns of the world. We just need to set out on our journey, prepared to find them.

Dr Helen Wright is a former UK and Australian headteacher who now supports and coaches international school leaders and schools across the world. She is the author of  The Globally Competent School: A manual

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