Humans, it is claimed, have a theory of mind. What this means is that we know what others are thinking, or better, at least we can anticipate what they might be thinking. This allows us to be self-aware and live in a complex society. We can see someone else and infer what’s going on in his or her noggin. This is often considered a uniquely human trait, but I’m not sure how widespread it is. You see, I frequently run into the situation where someone expects something of me without telling me. It happened just recently with an organization to which I belong. I’m a very busy person. I suspect most of us are—not having time to accomplish everything we need to get done. If someone wants something from me I have to be told what it is and I have to be told in detail.
One of the things my students always said was that I was a good teacher. The reason for this, I think, is that when I explain something I back up a bit before the beginning. I try to assume no knowledge on the subject before going in a bit more deeply. This method works because of my personal theory of mind. These people wouldn’t be taking a class on this subject if they already knew the stuff I could assume. For understanding something new, things have to be explained thoroughly. That doesn’t mean taking a lot of extra time, but it does mean not assuming others know what I know. For many people this is difficult. We’re all busy. We tell others “Do this,” without explaining what exactly “this” is. The results are predictable. It happens all the time in work emails.
I’ve recently written of teachers and ravens. The effective among the former understand the value of full explanation. The latter have a theory of mind that allows them to go as far as to try to fool others by giving not enough information. We might learn a lesson either by sitting in the classroom of the former or by watching the ravens that skulk on the edge of civilized areas. What they have in common is the ability to realize that others operate with limited information. In order to learn, information has to be conveyed and conveyed well. Even now colleagues at work are surprised at when I explain something that it’s done thoroughly and clearly. When I receive information it’s often piecemeal and frustrating. The reason, I infer, is that we don’t spend enough time paying attention to either our teachers or the ravens.