The Known-Unknown Framework of Discovery

The known-unknown framework for discovering and generating new knowledge is a time-tested approach, first attributed to the Greek Philosopher Socrates, and later refined by the 13th century Persian-Tajik poet and philosopher, Ibn Yami.

Briefly, this framework asks four questions:

  • What do we know already (known knowns)?
  • What are the surprises that we are completely unaware of (unknown unknowns)?
  • What biases and unconscious thoughts might be influencing our understanding (unknown knowns)?
  • Do our assumptions have validity, or are they off-target  (known unknowns)?
The known-unkowns framework of knowledge discovery considers the role of current knowledge, assumptions, biases, and surprises in our understanding of a situation.

As the Master Gardener Program continues to operate in the unique era of COVID-19, we want to take a deep dive into benefits, barriers, opportunities, and impacts that are experienced by Master Gardener volunteers and the communities that we serve. Thus, in true Master Gardener style, we’re going to ask a lot of questions ~ of ourselves, of you, and others ~ and we want to actively listen with open ears, open minds, and open hearts.

As the Statewide Master Gardener Program Cooridnator, I have lived and work in this program for 13 years. I spend a lot of time thinking about the Master Gardener Program (just ask my husband). I want to help the program grow in ways that lets the public know, without a doubt, that we are a trusted source of local gardening information. I want to swing the doors of our program open in such a way that makes Master Gardener trainings and volunteerism available to as many people as possible. I want to bring the benefits of gardening to every single Oregonian who wants to grow a houseplant, try their hand at composting, grow flowering plants for bees or birds, or grow their own food in 5-gallon buckets or in a 1/4 kitchen garden . . . and any or every other aspect of gardening.

Over the years, I’ve had instances where ~ even with the best of intentions ~ I could see that I was wearing blinders that prevented me from seeing the program from all perspectives. While it was painful to realize that I was wearing blinders, at the time, I was able to better serve the Master Gardener Program once I recognized my own assumptions and biases, and once I become more comfortable with surprises.

  • In 2009, I co-organized Mini-College, which is the name for the statewide Master Gardener conference. I was so proud of the program of workshops that we put together for conference participants, including a workshop on how to prepare healthy meals from the garden that was hosted by a Master Gardener who was a culinary institute instructor. I arranged to use a classroom in a building I was not familiar with. The classroom had a full demonstration kitchen, with mirrors that allowed the audience to see what was being prepared. I was sure that it would be a hit. Fast forward to the day of the workshop. The classroom was on the third floor. The elevators were broken (which was, apparently common for this building). One of the workshop participants was in a wheelchair. Participants carried the participant up the stairs ~ and my heart broke at how my oversight ~ my blinders ~ created a difficult situation for all. Since that day, every single conference or event that I plan, I move through the space thinking about how someone with a wheelchair or walker might navigate; how someone with hearing aids or a hearing impairment might experience the space. And, I still get it wrong! I once organized an event and realized that I had not allowed for space for service dogs. Another blinder, but another chance to improve.
  • Speaking of accessibility, I once had a potential Master Gardener volunteer lay out the true cost of Master Gardener training classes. I knew that the classes were costly (from $150 to $495). What I didn’t realize was that a person who would need to take off work to participate in classes was losing an additional $1,440 in income (8 hour workday * 12 Master Gardener course weeks * $15/hour wage = $1,440). And, in some counties, individuals are asked to pay a penalty of $100-$200 if they complete the classes, but don’t complete their volunteer service hours. Taken together, the true cost of taking the Master Gardener training course is somewhere between $1,590 to $2,135 for individuals who are employed, full time. Once these costs were laid bare to me, we worked with our Master Gardener chapters to provide more scholarships, moved more classes to evenings and weekends, provided more hybrid (online and in person) opportunities to complete training, lowered the service hour requirement to become a Master Gardener volunteer, and removed the financial penalty for not completing volunteer service. Yet, there is more work to do to remove these and other systemic barriers to program participation.
  • Not only should our spaces be accessible, but they also need to be welcoming. Master Gardener training classes are often three hours long, which is a dreadfully long time to sit in one place. On my instructor evaluations, I’ve received feedback that says something like ‘great class, but these chairs are awful.’. This was another ‘blinders’ moment for me. I’m standing up and teaching for three hours. what would it feel like if I had to sit in those seats for three hours? Over time, I’ve reduced the length of my training classes (quantity of content presented doesn’t translate into learning). And, I’ve tried to move away from passive lectures to more active and hands-on learning (which has been a fun challenge). I wish I had the budget to buy comfortable and accessible chairs for every Master Gardener training venue! Alas, that is not the case.
  • Another factor that may influence how welcoming a Master Gardener Program is to others ~ particularly to newcomers ~ is where we choose to hold classes and meetings. Many Master Gardener Programs partner with local churches to host trainings. Could imagery or words on that space make someone who is holds a different set of beliefs feel uncomfortable? Take a look at your training spaces with fresh eyes, to make sure that you are not inadvertently excluding folks by hosting trainings in a space that signals ‘you’re not welcome here’. Related to this, think about where Master Gardener chapter meetings are held. In an effort to build community and fun into Master Gardener chapter meetings, some have been held at local restaurants or local casinos. Does this exclude others, who don’t have expendable income to put towards a restaurant or buffet meal? Could it exclude folks who can’t tolerate cigarette smoke in a casino?

Identifying and understanding the blinders that are limiting our work . . . the assumptions, biases, and suprises (in the known-unknown framework of knowledge discovery). . . is so important to build a strong, accessible, and welcoming Master Gardener Program.

Towards this end, we are initiating surveys for Master Gardener volunteer feedback on the program, experiences and offerings.

  1. The development of a statewide, yearly survey for every active Master Gardener. Opportunity to share your experiences, impact and ideas. We anticipate these to begin in 2021 and just become a regular ongoing tool.
  2. Within the next week we are issuing a survey for feedback and response on program priorities, and the underlying values of the program. Having clearly communicated program priorities will help decision making for the important work we do, and underlying values will help guide us in doing this work.
  3. Within the coming month we’ll be soliciting your feedback on courses for the 2021 training year, what the year may look like, and areas of interest to focus coursework for Master Gardeners.

To keep spammers from flooding the surveys (which happens when we share a public link), we will distribute the survey invitations through your Master Gardener Program coordinators. If you were a Master Gardener, in past years, and would like to share your experiences with us, please let me know. We will make sure to share the survey link with you, directly.

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