00029_s_11agqaxsjg0341So here is the most difficult thing about mastering a subject- it is very hard to know what you don’t know. This makes it particularly hard to learn more and gain mastery. Without the realization that you need to learn more you won’t have the motivation to do so and you’ll end up really not mastering something but thinking that you have.

Middleton’s Rule #1: The more you know the more you don’t know what you know.

This isn’t very insightful if you think about it. Anything that you have been actively doing for more than a couple of years you have probably gained a certain level of skill, at least in your own mind. And once you have gained this competency it is natural to assume that there is nothing, or at least very, very little, else to learn. Been there, got that.

You know how to drive a car. You’ve been doing it for years. In your own mind there is very little more you could learn about day-to-day driving a car. There is so little that if a local driving school opened up nearby and offered classes it is unlikely you would sign up- you already know how to drive a car. What would be the point?

But do you? Might there be more to driving a car that you don’t know about? Might there be refinements of techniques, different ways to think about situations, better ways to approach things than the ways you have always been using? You and I will never know because we would never sign up for a driving class. Why? Because we think we already know how to drive and we don’t know what we don’t know about driving. In our ignorance is our bliss.

The same is true in photography. And the same is true for you as it is for me as it is everyone. We get photography. We know how to do what we want to do and like to do. We have been doing it for years. There are, of course, new areas for each of us to explore- indoors flash, night photography, maybe macro- and this will always be the case in a field as large and diverse as photography. But our regular photography, the kinds of pictures we tend to take whenever we are out taking pictures, we know how to do that.

Ah, but we don’t! Because we don’t know what we don’t know, we don’t know what we need to know. And because we don’t know what we need to know when someone tries to tell us that we do need to know we don’t think we do so we don’t.

This is the conundrum of try to teach anyone other than beginners and certainly the conundrum of teaching adults. As a teacher I can see what a student needs to know- it is usually pretty obvious. The trick to effective teaching is to help the student realize the same thing.

For example, let’s take depth of field. Everyone reading this believes that they know and understand depth of field. But I know from my workshops that in fact very few people do. But if I ask in the very beginning of class, “does everyone understand depth of filed?, I would get all positive responses. Photographers, just like everyone else, don’t know what they don’t know.

So what’s a person to do? These metacognitive skills (self –learning skills) are hard to acquire and to maintain. We often need some sort of reflector to bounce our inabilities back to us to make us realize that we don’t know something. That reflector can be a picture we see that we don’t know how it was done or a conversation we hear about something we don’t understand or an article we read about something we have never tried. The trick is to follow up and fill the gap in our knowledge once we realize the gap exists

A teacher makes a great reflector and on my workshops from now on I am going to be more diligent about finding out just how much my participants know and teaching to their gaps.  No sense asking if someone knows something- I am going to demonstrate and see if everyone is following along.  And I am going to think about my own metacognitive skills- what don’t I know? Extension tubes, anyone?