What is meta-cognition?

I’ve needed this entry for a long time. Wiki defines metacognition as “cognition about cognition”, or “knowing about knowing.” More importantly for our purposes, metacognition must be shared between two parties in order to have understanding and avoid confusion. To have meta-cognition, all of these conditions must be present

I must know
You must know
I must know that you know
You must know that I know
I must know that you know that I know
You must know that I know that you know
We must each know that each other knows.

Only if all of these conditions are met can we have perfect understanding. Let’s pursue the following in the context of a new designer seeking to place work with an experienced sewing contractor.

The problem in working with new designers is not that they don’t know much per se, it’s that there is no meta-cognition. A designer doesn’t know what they know and they don’t know what the other party knows. The contractor knows the designer must know something but doesn’t know what that might be. The two parties have to talk a bit which amounts to a negotiation of sorts. Terminology can be a touch stone; each party takes measure of the other based on how they define terms. Hopefully terms can become a shared language so meta cognition can develop quickly. This is why it is extremely important to use the right definitions.

For example, if a designer were to say “manufacturer” when they meant “sewing contractor”, the sewing contractor will know they’re dealing with someone starting at square one. Unfortunately, the designer doesn’t know the contractor knows this (and one reason I don’t understand why designers worry so much about negotiation strategy when through terminology, they’ve already told the other party everything they need to know). So say a designer dodges that minefield and knows the proper definition of sewing contractor vs manufacturer, there’s still more terms.

If the two parties are at an impasse (lacking meta cognition) specifications, protos and sketches are useful devices to create understanding. However, there are some situations in which it is nearly impossible to have meta-cognition no matter what you do. More specifically, it is almost impossible to have meta-cognition about textile performance. For this you can only have trust. The problem is, trust is based on meta-cognition. So in such situations that you don’t have meta-cognition and subsequent trust, this is one of those areas in which designers are singly responsible. No one else can be but you. The worst part about it is that the other party doesn’t know you don’t know and since they can’t know you don’t know, they can’t help you with it. And not coincidentally, that designers are responsible for understanding textile performance is the topic of my next entry.

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12 comments

  1. Lisa Brazus says:

    Interesting post. Kathleen sometimes when I read your posts I feel like I am back in college sitting in class. I remember doing an exercise about exact topic. A great thing btw.

  2. Michael Deibert says:

    I don’t think this is the best post to read at 1:38 AM when I’m ready to crash! My mind feels like it’s running in circles!

    But I definitely can see why meta-cognition is such a critical thing to know about – simply because without it, there are a plethera of ways the whole situation can fall apart.

  3. Theresa in Tucson says:

    meta-cognition is having the same “road maps” in the brain; road directions from a common point of reference. Excellent post.

  4. Seth Meyerink-Griffin says:

    Reminds me of a quote from Rumsfeld. Paraphrased, he said that there were things we know, things we didn’t know, and things we didn’t know that we didn’t know. This is probably an issue with young designers (including me, *especially* including me!), but not an issue with contractors that have been in business for many years.

    The way I’m reading this, the problem arises because the designer doesn’t know that they don’t know something, the contractor isn’t able to readily determine how much knowledge the designer is lacking, and so it takes a long time to establish a baseline for communication. If I were a contractor, this would be very frustrating; I would be trying to explain things to the lowest common denominator without knowing what that denominator was. As a designer, a contractor doing this might make me feel like they were treating me like an idiot when they covered things that I already *did* know, and (if I had much of an ego) would be offensive. (I prefer believing that I don’t have much of an ego, but this belief could be false.)

  5. Barb Taylorr says:

    Whether you are the designer or the manufacturer, I think you can gain a lot of knowledge and build better communication by saying things such as, “This is my understanding”….followed up with “please confirm or correct”, or “please advise”. Try very hard not to assume anything, and never try to fake it when you don’t know something. That philosophy has worked very well for me at any rate.
    If the party you are dealing with confirms your thinking, or if they are willing to tell you where you are off track, then you are making a good start toward develpoing metacognition with them. If you are way off-base from their way of thinking and they have no patience to explain it to you, then you will know this is probably not the best partner for you to be working with.

  6. Jane says:

    Interesting post. I’d much rather see designers have a problem with meta-cognition than the Department of Defense! I once had the head of a factory I was using tell me, “Look, Jane. I know more about this than you do, believe me!” I was slightly offended at the time but quickly realized I needed to use some more phrases like Barb suggests. A little “This is my understanding” sauce goes a long way.

  7. Marie-Christine says:

    > one reason I don’t understand why designers worry so much about negotiation strategy when
    > through terminology, they’ve already told the other party everything they need to know

    So true… and not just in sewing.

  8. Collins Eseme says:

    Dear Kathleen, have been reading your post and i find it very usefull and educating.I am a sewing contractor’s agent and i hope a stat my manufacturing buisness soon.Please how can subscribe to your post because i find them very interesting and usefull?thanks Collins Eseme

  9. Cary Pragdin says:

    Dear Collins,
    If you buy Kathleen’s book, The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Sewn Product Manufacturing, you will have free access to the Member’s Forum for a year. You will also have an essential reference book for your new business that will save you a lot of money and unnecessary stress.
    Kind regards,

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