The only person who is educated is the one who has learned how to learn …and change.

– Carl Rogers

May 1986: I was excited about the job offer from the department of atomic energy. Apart from being a government job, what was more exciting was that I was going to work for one of the prestigious nuclear research projects and would have an opportunity to work with some of the best scientists in the field. I had a month’s time to join the research centre at Bombay or Mumbai as it is known now. I was living in a small town in South India. Because I had a month’s time, I wanted to go fully prepared for the job. I dusted out all the text books I had on nuclear physics and brushed my subject knowledge, and additionally borrowed books from library to equip myself as much as possible. I really wanted to impress my boss, whoever he or she was going to be, right from the day-one.

The Jolt:

The D-day arrived.  I was there at the research centre- centre was an understatement- it was a very huge complex sprawling over hundreds of acres with a lot of greenery around, surrounded by hills on one side and the Arabian sea on the other, both providing a natural boundary. I reported at the huge engineering laboratory, where the pilot plant of the isotope separation project was housed. After the security checks, I was allocated a special pass to enter the control room, where I met, for the first time,  my would-be boss for the next four years, a senior scientist, very down-to-earth person and the person whom I admire to this day for his scientific quest and personal humility.

I thought I would have an opportunity to show-case my preparation in nuclear physics. After a brief introduction, the first question Mr Gantayet posed to me was, ‘do you know to speak Hindi?’ I was jolted for a moment. At that time, Hindi was literally Greek-and-Latin to me. Leave alone speaking, I wouldn’t even understand a syllable in Hindi. But he was not surprised, for he knew that I was from deep-South, where Hindi was neither spoken nor taught. Seeing my shocked state, he immediately comforted me -explaining me as to why it was important (as most people would speak mostly Hindi)- and asked me to take two to three months time to familiarise myself with spoken Hindi. And the best way, he said, to learn a language was to start using it without bothering about what others would think. ‘You don’t have to wait to perfect it before trying it; only by trying, you would get to perfection.’ The rest was simple, for that matter, it took less than a month, for me to start speaking my butler-Hindi and in less than three months I was at home with Hindi.

Moment of Awareness:

That jolt was important to push me to a new learning- that jolt was the point of awareness of my blindspot– that is, when I moved from “I don’t know what I don’t know (dk-dk)” to “I know what I don’t know (k-dk)” state. When faced with a situation when my existing skills are not enough to cope with, I am pushed to the point of disturbance and learn new skills to survive the situation. This ‘moment of truth’ is the real awareness. If you don’t know swimming and one fine day, you find yourself in neck-deep water, this awareness happens.  In my case, it was my ignorance of Hindi.

When it comes to behavioural learning, a jolting feedback or some highly embarrassing event can create this awareness. For instance, some feedback on one’s bad-breathe or body odour could change the oral hygiene and cleanliness of a person. However, general tendency is to block this awareness by getting into different modes of defence rather than confronting the truth.

Four Stages:

I am reminded of a good old saying (not sure of the origin), which labels people based on the awareness of abilities and advises on how to deal with them.

“He who knows not, and knows not that he knows not, is a fool. Shun him.

He who knows not, and knows that he knows not is simple. Teach him.

He who knows, and knows not that he knows, is asleep. Wake him.

He who knows, and knows that he knows is wise. Follow him.”

If you take only the first part of each line without heeding to the advice part, it tells us something about the stages we go through from being a fool to becoming wise. I will now paraphrase the saying into the four stages of learning we go through.

Stage 1: I don’t even know that I don’t know- I am stuck – let’s call it dk-dk stage

Stage 2: I know that I don’t know- I am aware – this is k-dk

Stage 3: I know that I know – I am conscious of my knowledge- I am learning – this is k-k

Stage 4: I don’t know that I know – I am unconsciously doing- I have internalised my learning. Now, I am in dk-k stage

Learning to Unlearn:

Let us get to some concrete examples. Have you noticed a stray dog crossing a traffic-ridden road? How did it learn the knack? Sheer survival instinct.  But the problem with this kind of unconscious learning is that it continues to be in force even after the learning loses its validity. That is to say, we hold on to what we have learnt, even after the situations that caused the learning in the first place, have changed. If you pick the same clever dog that can dodge the traffic in Chennai traffic and put it in Stockholm, it will be terribly confused by the new traffic norms (with right side driving instead of left) and will kill itself on the road, unless it adapts its old skill.

Similarly, when we are pushed into a new situation, we desperately continue to apply our old skill, without realising that the old skill has no more relevance in the changed scenario. This calls for ‘unlearning’. But what makes this unlearning difficult for us is the identity that we create for ourselves with our learning. If you remember, one of the important professions of yester-years was ‘stenography’ and when word processors and computers came into being and the executives started taking care of their written communication needs on their own, the stenographer became the Dodo. But many of them who stuck on with their label or identity as ‘stenographers’ refused to adapt and learn new skills and were rendered redundant.

Learning Cycle:

This doesn’t mean that we can be so simplistic about the situational demands of human learning. The external changes can sometimes be so swift and so diverse that it may demand radically different sets of skills at a rapid rate. Are we not seeing the rapid changes of skillsets-in-demand in the technology arena? When it comes to behavioural arena, the demands for new learning may not be very obvious. It is only by constantly looking around for cues and feedback, we can find out the need. Hence the essential first step is to ‘become aware’. That is when we move from ‘I don’t know that I don’t know’ dk-dk stage to ‘I know that I don’t know’ k-dk stage(see the box). This awareness of one’s ignorance triggers the learning process. Th e rest of the things are self-explanatory. Once, you feel the need to learn, you start learning and acquiring the new skill, knowledge, habit or behaviour that can help you survive and cope with the new situation. That is when you start going through the learning stage from ‘I know that I don’t know’ k-dk to ‘I know that I know’ k-k. After you have learnt the new skill, you start practising it and by repeated practice, the new skill gets internalised and becomes part of you. At this stage, your skill is so internalised and natural for you that you are not even aware that you are using your skill or, you don’t even know that you know it i.e. dk-k stage, or ‘unconscious competence’, the term the trainers are fond of flaunting around.   An often-cited example for dk-k state is driving. If you are adept at driving and have been driving your car through the same route to office every day, then over time, your habit of driving becomes so automated that you are not even conscious of your driving.

After going through the learning cycle, you may again find yourself at the beginning of a newer learning cycle. You need not always wait for an environmental cue or feedback to discover your potential flaws. Looking into yourself can also give this awareness. Education, it is said, is the progressive realisation of ignorance and I feel nothing can be truer.

So keep journeying up the learning spiral and to find out if you are on learning track, keep asking yourself every now and then, what Emirates’ ad asks: When was the last time you did something for the first time?


The Learning Cycle above is adapted from the ‘learning cycle’ model in the book, Total Quality TrainingThe Quality Culture and Quality Trainer By Brian Thomas. I stumbled upon this in the Library of ATI, Mysore when I was undergoing training on ‘Direct Trainer’s Skills’ in 1997.  This model is being extensively used today by the community of androgogists, or Training Facilitators (to which I belong) and it is bounden on our part to acknowledge the source.


Thought Note – Sow a thought now, and reap a result later:

There could be a jolt lurking around in the corner for any of us. The best way to pre-empt the jolts is to explore and construct scenarios of future so that you can prepare yourself in advance; for instance I could have started on Hindi even before going to Bombay, had I visualised the scenario, a bit more realistically.

Can you take a look at you crucial skills and explore as to what could be the new demands on your skills in future. How can you better prepare for such emerging demands?