An Illusion of Knowledge: Re-creating Learning and Teaching Techniques in AEC

Those who think they know never learn.” - from the Tao Te Ching

“I don’t know” is not a bad answer; it’s the greatest starting point. - me ;)

This piece cannot possibly cover where a group can take this live, as this is intended to be an interactive, inclusive conversation and exploration, so there there are many sides missing herein. But once you add your sets of thoughts… 

Learning and teaching BIM processes will not stop until the next revolution overtakes AECO production. Then it will start all over again. But I digress…

How Is Learning and Teaching in AEC Really Going?

Are parts of our processes running flat, or worse, tailing off? It may be seen as similar to the CAD revolution days—there was an initial burst of learning and teaching energy that has settled (all too) comfortably into a flat zone, or worse a dropping off the ledge—an “I know what I need” delusion. A kind of “Well, I can get most of my work done, no matter if it only ‘looks’ right” mentality. These types of views or conversations really need to be overthrown. A non-expert assessing what he or she “needs” is akin to a kindergartener telling the teacher what they “need” to learn. Cute, but probably incorrect.

“The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.” I cannot agree more with this quote by Stephen Hawking. This session is an attempt to open an acknowledgement and bridging of our illusions, my illusions, of how best to teach and learn. Within exploring how we think and learn, allowing a redefinition of what we think (what I think) can be taught, and conversely, learned. In that we can create the appropriate revolution that is the only way, as I see it, to fix the long understood waste in AEC. BIM is a revolution and we mainly deal with it at an evolution’s pace… way too slow amidst our Moore’s Law “technoconomies.”

We may now be in the end of BIM’s Golden Age, or worse, in its Reformation stages, where a sort of comfort has been reached, slowing full BIM, BIM adoption, and overall success in reducing the ongoing (over 60 years’ worth now) of AEC waste. This is why I want to see a revolution that stays the course of radical technical learning, teaching, and industry re-creation and more time for creativity, not fighting tools, and process change.

It is clear there is an ongoing revolution of AEC around processes—BIM processes and business processes alike—and this requires both firms and individuals to engage in ongoing education. Thus, learning and teaching. What do we strive for, what do we stand for… think about it. Is status quo acceptable or do we want to reach loftier goals of excellence in our practice? BTW: You do know why it’s called a “practice,” right? If a team is as strong as its weakest link, then it serves us all to raise the floor for everyone we touch.

We often say we strive to develop our practices, but do we nurture and retain intellectual and creative expertise as well as we could, as well as we “want”? Learning by teaching challenge is a cause that can stand to enrich our projects, firms, and ourselves.

We can facilitate better, stronger, faster (enter widget name here) by changing our perspectives, by transforming them. In this case, transforming our learning and teaching approaches. We CAN change AEC, we can speed the revolution of adoption, of brilliance, of anything we choose—if we have the desire; all that remains is action.

What Many Call “Teams” Aren’t Really

While there are some A-Teams in AECO, there is much learning and teaching yet (and nearly always) to do industry-wide if we want excellence to be dominant. If we distinguish what is from what we think is, and work at closing the divide between them, there can be found an immediate new world to step into—new openings, new connections to grow.

Apply this to AEC learning and teaching and we will create breakthroughs that we never could foresee. For example, start the next Revit fundamentals class with a one- day challenge; mix it up. Example: In a [software of choice] beginner class, go over the interface and tool overview then ask students to break into small groups and tackle the challenge together. Let them fumble, help each other… then, when you get more into the fundamentals, there will be a completely different focus you may find. You may also find some of the barriers that people are carrying, and then you can deal with them openly… BIM Gymnasts Wanted.

What Do We Know, What Do We Think?

There is a huge distinction between “what we think we know” and “what we know.”  Knowledge versus belief; or thought or judgment…

Yes, first: what do we know? Plato is quoted: “I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.” If we look to Plato we see that we may truly “know” nothing. His writings are in part a cornerstone to the foundation of understanding learning and teaching, as well as a good inspiration generator for writing down (or having written down) one’s own words and thoughts so future generations can benefit.

While often paraphrased, Plato’s original ironic thought is difficult to argue against. Even Einstein gave knowledge a “limited” rating. If we embrace the idea that we do not know, that there is always more to learn, that with every answer there are greater questions to answer, then we can build our learning and teaching processes to their fullest potential. When that is achieved, then we will have even greater expanses to live into. It’s life—jump in, the water’s fine. 

To teach others, we can only hope to inspire—inspire thought, agreement, disagreement, and debate. Base teaching methods on the idea that learning only happens in/by and from one “place.” But we’ll get to that.

Back to “what we know,” or what we think we know. We know that scientists don’t say anything is 100 percent (Einstein’s “limited” again).

No matter how true this or Plato may be or is, it points to how much of a delusional species we can be… Too much of what we call knowledge is an illusion to knowledge, at best. Even if we contend that we have knowledge, it is fleeting and may just about be proven wrong or developed beyond any fixed point of absolutism.

Much of what students learn in medical school is outdated by the time they become full-fledged doctors; this is taught to them. We can go on and on looking at things that humans have “known”—really, really, really known—and yet they are no longer even fit for mythology. Learning starts by accepting that we don’t know.

As useful as this thing we call knowledge is and no matter how illusory and fleeting it is, we have no choice but to remain ever-evolving thinkers and, at best, inspirations. The entire conversation over knowledge comes down to one point from which I now want to jump off: there is no fixed, specific definition of what knowledge is; it ranges from an awareness to expertise and more.

With this in mind, what we call knowledge in most every case is something else—perception, thought, belief, etc. If anything, knowledge is a moving and ever-changing target so the teacher's focus, as I see it, wants to be driven to more than an imparting of facts and processes. Teaching in this light must be balanced with inspiration and learning is begun through an openness to being inspired. There’s gold in them there hills.

Illusions of knowledge, no matter how tightly we cling to them, are not knowledge. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it just is. At times these illusions help us, at times they hold us back. The places where illusions to knowledge actually limit potential or achievement and/or excellence are the places that need transformation. Dealing with things as they are, distinct from how we may interpret them, will serve us much better in learning and teaching.

Barriers to Teaching, Barriers to Learning

What are some of the barriers to learning and teaching that come to mind? We all can name quite a few I imagine.

The #1 barrier to learning and teaching may be not being present.

Not being present, whether physically, intellectually, or otherwise will obviously keep one from the possibility of learning deeply. I want to focus on the intellectual or mental lack of presence; the physical is somewhat obvious to deal with. The lack of presence barrier can be from being stuck in one's head rather than being in the conversation (out here). When we are listening to the conversations in our minds we are not present, nor out here. This may be impossible to completely eradicate, but to the degree we can, our abilities to take information onboard will be dramatically improved on the way to learning. Focus is what it is called, and the teacher is as responsible as the student.

Assessments Must be Honest and Truth-Based

Another benefit or impediment to both sides of the education processes is assessment. A good ability to assess both ourselves and others is key to providing environments where the most people can benefit at the greatest amount possible. Breaking away from, or at least understanding, our own biases is the key to assessing clearly.

As humans we can see or make up patterns where none exist. We can act as if what we think is true is a truth for all. We can be quite delusional, not intentionally, but that is the problem: if we don’t act intentionally, then who or what is really running the show?

To provide the most benefit for the most people (the best learning, the best teaching, etc.) we have to bring a more dynamic approach, whether we are the student or teacher. We must develop our intellectual, philosophical, and emotional capabilities as well as our technical abilities and focus. Inspire someone to work toward his or her own greatness; the button-pushing will flow naturally. Challenge your students, challenge your teachers, challenge yourself.

A person working in AEC can learn how to create architecture, design structures, or manage a construction site, etc. so learning to drive software is purely a matter of math: (Desire+Action) at a basic level. Teaching or learning software is not what I feel our only focus should be; inspiration is. To be truly great learners and teachers we must work at and be open to inspiration: both being inspired and being an inspiration to others. If one is not open, information has no hope of becoming “knowledge,” from making a meaningful connection. Curiosity is key to this. As we may know, the more one learns, the more questions open up, but it is in this growth that invigorates our species into future greatness. Scientists understand curiosity implicitly and work and teach and learn with it. I feel AEC would be well served to become more like scientists in our approaches: dig, learn, teach, ask, answer, research, dig more... fly.

Assessing ourselves and others is an important piece to being a successful educator AND learner. When assessing people, it is important to get a grasp on the nature of our own assessment abilities. The Dunning-Kruger Effect sheds light on human’s abilities to make assessments. Turns out we need to be careful to understand our assessment biases.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect states there is "a cognitive bias, wherein unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their ability much higher than is accurate. This bias is attributed to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their ineptitude." The unskilled lack precisely that which would allow a true assessment of their own abilities.

But wait, that’s only the half of it.

The skilled (high-ability folks) have their own issues to navigate. The research also suggests corollaries, where high-ability individuals may underestimate their relative competence and may erroneously assume that tasks which are easy for them are also easy for others.

Until we acknowledge our place at any moment on a so-called Dunning-Kruger “Continuum” between "high-ability" and "low-ability" we may find ourselves at a disadvantage in providing the exact things we say we want: firm, project, personal, and professional excellence and growth. If we don’t actually know, but act from a place of knowing, this is one a strategy sure to hold everyone involved back.                                           

How Do We Teach and What Is the Best Way to Teach?

If teaching is as one definition states: "ideas or principles taught by an authority." Then that definition is lacking to me. It fails to take into account the other vital part of teaching: learning. Let’s think Learning IS Teaching.

How? What am I trying to get at? Learning happens at the electro-chemical level in the brain (ask a neuroscientist if you are skeptical). It may be influenced by outside stimuli but not “because” of it. Synapses are connected based on how we are built, not consciously but unconsciously, automatically, although it can be inspired and affected by outside stimuli. Can we rewire ourselves to learn and teach more—more effectively, more enjoyably, more (______)? Yes.

The choice of what to focus on, what to retain, what inspires us is either purely unconscious or in combination with conscious “help.” Not always is this choice conscious. It is arguable that nothing we do is consciously chosen, as conscious thoughts arise out of our unconscious, which created the thought well before it hit our conscious minds. This time lag ranges from ¼ to ½ a second to upwards of 5 or more seconds depending on the circumstances.

Read Sam Harris's Free Will, which explores thought and the inner workings of our thinking processes. Very enlightening and challenging. Harris is a neuroscientist, philosopher, and author. The concepts he explores are profound, far reaching, and evocative... plus I find it relates to an understanding of learning and teaching from the actions of our minds, where thoughts come from and/or are devised.

If we master what we can influence and try to understand what we cannot influence,  we can create educational environments that create further success.

How Do We Learn?

OK, what are some ways you learn? (Read that as: “What are some ways that I learn?” “What ways do I prefer and why”?)

The best way to learn is to teach

The ONLY way to learn is to teach; it’s physical!

The way I see it: we learn by teaching. (Or, at the very least, we learn [better] by teaching.)

We teach ourselves…

If learning has to do with taking in stimuli and interpreting it and making it meaningful or not, remembering it… then it is purely internal, physical. “We” do not do the teaching, our brains which “we” do not control do the teaching, ultimately. Can one help others learn? Obviously! The question I will end with is one I think may be obvious by now: How can I apply this to my world?

How Can We Apply This to AEC?

  • Inspire yourself, inspire others
  • Be critical, but assess outside the Dunning-Kruger Effect
  • Find, nurture, and hone desire
  • Take perseverant actions
  • Challenge and refine
  • Create competition (it is good!)
  • Teach success, learn success
  • Transform mediocrity and delusion
  • Breakthrough
  • Find the flat spots of growth and work on those

AEC is in a revolution of technology and processes, yet many act as if it’s an evolution. So did the coal men, the wagon wheelers, the ice men, the dinosaurs (lol)… how’s that working out for them?

If we truly want to teach and learn, no matter the nature of what thought or knowledge are, then we must take more bold actions than the oft conservative and slow acting and reacting AEC can be. Transformative, revolutionary actions. It’s only bettering our industry we’re talking about here.

If we don’t stand for something, we’ll fall for anything.

Is Mediocrity Sustainable?

Though it’s a debate unto itself, at a fundamental level, I do see that mediocrity is simply not acceptable to those who are, as well as for those who want to become, great.

So, what does your firm want? What does AECO want—mediocrity running the show or greatness? If we want greatness, rethinking all our processes is due.

I stand to see each and every one of us transform AECO into a truly great industry—not just for the few who “get it” themselves, but for everyone. We can find ways to reach everyone or die trying ;)

Take a long view and approach and build from both successes and failures. Build excellence.

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