Category Archives: Education

Seven Ways to Fight Dunning-Kruger Skill Gaps

by John M Olsen

The Dunning-Kruger Effect comes from a scholarly paper published in 1999 by social psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger. It describes a bias where people with low cognitive ability in a specific area also are a poor judge of their ability in that area. If you are good at something, you tend to know you are good at it. If you are very bad at something, you have a good chance of being unaware of how bad you are and assuming you have much greater skill than you really do. It’s like a drunk who believes he’s a better driver than when he’s sober, or that one guy you know who thinks it’s hilarious to constantly tell Dad Jokes.

A five-dollar word for this area of psychology is metacognition. It means thinking about how thinking works. But what does it do for us when we think about how our minds work, or how the minds of others work? That’s where the seven points come into play.

1. Awareness

Recognize there is infinitely more out there than what you already know. There are four categories of knowledge. Things you know you know (I know how to drive a car), things you know you don’t know (I don’t know how to perform open heart surgery), things you don’t know you know (Replacing that toilet float valve was simpler than I thought it would be), and things you don’t know you don’t know (Where did that come from?). In addition, there are things you think you know which are wrong. One name for this process and ability is self-awareness.

The trick is to migrate as much as possible into that first category, the things you know that you know, while removing both the ignorance and the lies you believe. You draw on this knowledge base every day.

2. Study Broadly

Study many subjects. Learn new things. Be curious. A broad base leads to better general understanding because different areas overlap. If I know how nuts, bolts, and levers work, I can apply that when I change a tire or assemble Ikea furniture.

Will I ever use this math?

When I started writing short fiction regularly, I thought I knew what I was doing. Then I started to study writing and discovered whole areas of story structure I didn’t even know about before. There were story structures I hadn’t heard of, and even vocabulary I didn’t know such as “meet cute” and “denouement.”

Your day-to-day behavior depends on what you know, so grow your knowledge base. There are several ways to do this, which I’ll mention next.

3. Read for Pleasure

Read Fantasy and Science Fiction. I read quite a bit and devoured my father’s library when I was a teenager. You probably read, too, if you’re here following this blog.There are some things that make Speculative Fiction different from other reading.

There are some things that make Speculative Fiction different from other reading. One of these is how information is delivered. Quite often at the start of a story you are bombarded with new things like names, concepts, geography, and a host of other things that are not all explained up front. Those who enjoy fantasy and science fiction have learned to package the dangling ends up and store them in a mental box labeled “the author will get back to this soon, so don’t worry about it.”

If a Borlox smells an iron-tipped carbonizer, you create a couple of boxes and drop the new terms in while fully expecting to learn what both things mean sometime in the near future.

This ability to package and delay the matching up of terms and definitions changes how you think, and how you deal with conversations. You have a built-in stock of questions to ask when someone talks to you about a new subject because you’re used to building up a list of unknowns to be defined later.

4. Expand Your Horizons

Push outside your bubble. We all have a comfort zone where everything is understood and accepted. Learn about new technical fields. Learn a language. Study history. Collect stamps, coins, or seashells. It doesn’t matter how you expand, but it does matter that you do something.

Everyone is ignorant in some area. Everyone is wrong about something. Everyone is right about something else. These bubbles we live in exist in a lot of areas. If you spend any time on social media, you can see where people divide into factions who all tend to share opinions and believe about the same way. You’ve probably seen this a lot related to politics and religion.

The problem is that these groups often don’t understand those they disagree with, which makes the others easy to label as the enemy rather than as an opportunity to learn something new. You may not agree with the other camp in the end, but if you understand them, you’re more likely to treat them as decent human beings.

If you’re generalizing, you’re probably looking at something outside your collection of bubbles, something outside your horizon. Learn about it from those who understand it. It will do you little good to learn about a subject from its critics.

5. Avoid Imposter Syndrome

Once you’ve improved a skill, you may notice that you take that skill for granted and assume everyone is as good as you, if not better. Dunning-Kruger shows this in the graphs of the study where the most skilled will underestimate their proficiency because they assume they are average.

You can become an expert. You may have heard the rule of thumb that you can become an expert at something by spending 10,000 hours doing it. That will vary wildly from one subject to another, just like the idea as a writer that your first million words are just practice and likely garbage.

The Dunning-Kruger study showed that learning a skill improved the ability to judge skill level in that area. As you become an expert, you will recognize your past ignorance and your current skill level more and more over time.

There is, however, one downside.

6. Retain Humility

Once you’ve overcome Imposter Syndrome, your biggest challenge is to remain humble about your improved skills. There are enough unknowns out there to keep you humble if you look for them. Go back and learn something new all over again. We are all horribly ignorant in so many areas that we can’t count them.

Some look on humility as a weakness. Here’s a different way to look at it:

There’s another step to this to keep in mind as well, since there’s something a lot of humble experts have in common from my personal experience.

7. Teach others

Encourage others to expand their horizons. Share what you know, whether it’s knowledge in a particular field or a general thirst for truth.


John M Olsen reads and writes fantasy, science-fiction, steampunk, and horror as the mood strikes, and his short fiction is part of several anthologies. He devoured his father’s library in his teen years and has since inherited that formidable collection and merged it with his own growing library in order to pass a love of learning on to the next generation.

He loves to create things, whether writing novels or short stories or working in his secret lair equipped with dangerous power tools. In either case, he applies engineering principles and processes to the task at hand, often in unpredictable ways.

He lives near the Oquirrh Mountains in Utah with his lovely wife and a variable number of mostly grown children and a constantly changing subset of extended family.

Strap on some safety goggles and see all his ramblings on his blog.

His debut Fantasy novel Crystal King is available on Amazon.

Reading Science Fiction and Fantasy Makes Your Kids Smarter

by J. Philip Horne

Do you want your children to expand their vocabulary and, more importantly, learn to continue to expand their vocabulary in the normal course of life more rapidly? Give them science fiction and fantasy novels to read. Science fiction and fantasy novels overtly place demands on readers that are implicit and beneficial in all literature: namely, the skill of learning word meanings from context.

Children reading a novel set in a familiar time and place may gloss over words they don’t understand because the general setting and flow of the story isn’t compromised. The story, even the specific sentence, still makes sense to them, or makes enough sense, even if they don’t know the meaning of a particular adjective or even verb. The story remains enjoyable and engaging despite words passing by, unknown. Though they will still benefit from the gradual expansion of their vocabulary, they won’t necessarily be overtly challenged to wrestle with the context to find the meaning.

Science fiction and fantasy novels are in your face. They focus on strange new settings and employ vocabulary that is often new or even made-up. If the reader is unwilling to puzzle out the meaning of words from their context, the story will simply drag to a halt and the enjoyment of the story will evaporate. Young readers want to enjoy books and will find their natural curiosity pushing them to decipher these strange or made-up words.

Like any skill, the ability to learn word meaning from context improves with practice. In my experience, the overt practice of this skill forced on readers by science fiction and fantasy translates into an improved passive ability to harvest new vocabulary from other literature. The child practices the skill on behalf of their enjoyment of the The Hobbit, and goes on to more effortlessly expand their vocabulary when reading Where the Red Fern Grows.

You can find endless, helpful lists online of great SFF books for kids. Probably the most important series to me as a child was the Chronicles of Narnia. The seven books in the series get sorted in two different orders based on publication date and the chronology of the stories themselves. I strongly recommend starting with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. From there, either order will work.

Beyond that, I read voraciously from authors such as J.R.R. Tolkien (have you heard of him?), David Eddings, Terry Brooks, Robert Heinlein, and others. As I’ve read books along with my own children, I’ve come to love J.K. Rowling (you may have heard of her as well), Eoin Colfer, Margaret Peterson Haddix, and many more.

The goal is not to convince your child to read so that they improve their vocabulary. Rather, help them find books they love, and the process, particularly with science fiction and fantasy novels, will happen organically. Good luck!

You can check out J. Philip Horne’s books here.