Friday, February 19, 2016

Skills we don’t know we don’t know…

The first time I ran across this behavior in a field study I was deeply surprised:  How could a literate person who goes web browsing and searching on a daily basis NOT know how to do a Find on the page? 

It was as if someone could read and knew the alphabet, but didn’t understand that you could use the alphabetic sequence to locate a word in the dictionary.  It just seems like a giant lacuna in their skill set, something that I just couldn’t imagine.  How could you use a computer on a daily basis, reading and writing, and NOT be able to instantly do Control-F (or CMD-F, for Macheads; or more slowly, Edit>Find ) to locate a word or phrase on the page? 

Even more staggering was learning how pervasive this gap is—my best guess is that somewhat less than 20% of the adult, internet-using population know about Control-F, the FIND command, in the browser. 

I’ve asked this question many times, “do you know how to quickly locate a single word on a web page?”  And an incredible number of people say “no… what are you talking about?”  I then describe a common situation—you’ve searched for something and landed on a longish web page that you know has the thing you’re looking for, but you can’t manage to spot it. 
That always brings a grunt of recognition.  Everyone has had this happen to them.  They go to the race results page for the 10K they ran last week, and can’t manage to find their name on the list of 1029 runners.  Scrolling slowly through the (very long) page is painful, but they know their name is on the list. 

So when I ask “what do you do in this situation?” many people say, “I just look very carefully…” not realizing that a single Control-F would take them to their name in a split-second.  

I’ve asked this question many, many times.  I’ve asked a room full of librarians—80% would know.  I’ve asked friends who are physicists, counselors, professors at universities you’d recognize… and even among this elite, technologically savvy group, the hit rate is roughly 50%.  And when I ask just-plain-folks who use the internet, the rate drops below 20%, and in the public at large, it's around 10% of internet users who know this.  

But the thing I find most amazing is that people who don’t know about Control-F don’t know they don’t know.  They run across the problem often, but it somehow never occurred to them that there would be a quick, simple, easy fix.

Many of the people I tell about this are annoyed:  “How was I supposed to learn this?”  They quickly realize that this is a tiny skill that will save them a huge amount of time in the future.  But it’s unclear what the “right” way they should have picked it up.  

Truth is, I don’t know.  When do you learn all of those fundamental skills?  I don’t know.  
The rise of “life-hacking” is one response.  If you haven’t heard about it, “life-hacking” is a new theme of informal learning about the skills needed to operate your life.  Generally, it’s about how to use tools, re-organize your work, analyze your work-life balance, get a better calendaring system… all that kind of stuff.  But the life-hackers are on to something: they’re out to capture the informal knowledge that’s not really taught anywhere else.  The little tricks (and sometimes big tricks) that can make your life smoother, faster, simpler, and maybe more effective.

And perhaps this Control-F find command is one of those small memes that otherwise gets lost in the day-to-day fray.  

The bigger questions is this: How many other things like this are there?  How many more skills do you have that would be incredibly handy for me to have as well?  And… how can I find out about them? 

I’m reminded of the young woman at a local junior college who didn’t know about the Save command in MS Word.  She would write her papers in Word, then print out the paper as her way of saving the text.  Of course, if she wanted to edit the text, she’d have to type it all back in again.  

One of the little life heuristics I read about many years ago was this: “When something is a hassle, try to figure out a way to make it easier on you.”  

You’d think that having to re-type an entire paper would classify as a major hassle.  Yet she never thought to spend time looking for a way to avoid the problem.

Sounds dumb, right?  But think about all the people who never learned Control-F.  They never noticed the hassle either.  Say this slowly: they never noticed the hassle...  

WHY this happens has a great deal to do with framing (that is, the way you think about a problem in the world).   A problem can be seen as a problem ONLY when you can also see some way to deal with it.  If you don’t have any way to alter the situation, then you don’t see a problem, you see that this is the way the world IS.  

This is the point of teaching—to learn to see the world in other ways, to see different parsings of reality, and to understand the kinds of things that can be done.  Usually, the best way to do that is to watch a master at work, observe what he does and pick up the tricks of practice over the shoulder.

Lest we think that our intellect and skills are so highly refined and honed, remember the Control-F story… we are all blind to problems, and the skills you need to overcome the problems.  This is especially true when you can’t see the hassles in the world, and don’t have any way to figure out what skills you need that you don’t even know you need.  If only we had a Control-F for skills that we lack, but don’t know we’re missing. 

And if you didn’t know about Control-F / CMD-F, let me know.  I’d like to talk with you for a bit and understand how you managed to miss this particular skill…. 


  1. Great read, thanks!

    The first analogy ("It was as if someone could read and knew the alphabet, but didn’t understand that you could use the alphabetic sequence to locate a word in the dictionary.") is really to-the-point. Well, as a writers' teacher and tutor, I have seen countless people, including really educated ones, who actually have a real hard time browsing the dictionary, because the alphabetic sequence is not a thing they know very well.

    Also, have you ever observed many students spending a lot of time looking at the grades list on the wall? Or, for the matter, applicants for anything doing the same (including teachers)? Well, for a long time, I thought they were looking for fellow students'grades too — but no, they're just trying and having a hard time findind their own names, in spite of the list being in alphabetic order too.

  2. Oh yeah, I know a lot about that. Many if not most social skills are assumed to be inborn (and not learned), so if you don't display them people assume you're being rude on purpose -- not that you never picked them up, were never taught them or learned very different social skills.

    One can start to catch up, but just watching others may not be enough -- because you don't know what they're thinking and thus don't know how close their words/actions are to their thoughts. (For example, you might or might not learn to praise even those gifts you hate by watching others, because you could interpret their saying: "Oh, I love this one!" as simple honest sentiment.)

    On the other hand, once you know there's a problem (eg, you're practically the only one at school who can't even buy a date, you're the one who learns about So-and-so's birthday blowout by seeing everyone else wear the T-shirts at school on Monday, etc), you might ask someone you trust for help. Just be prepared to hear a lot of stuff you don't like, embrace it and learn from it.

    On another note:

    "[W]hen I ask just-plain-folks who use the internet, the rate drops below 20%, and in the public at large, it's around 10% of internet users..."

    I'm a little bit confused. What's the difference between just-plain-folks who use the Internet, and Internet users within the public at large?

    1. "Just-plain-folks who use the internet" are exactly that. By contrast, "the public at large" includes a number of people who do not use the internet in any significant way. Including them drops the use rate by a bunch.

    2. Hi Dan,

      First off, please pardon my social skills tangent. One under-rated social skill is knowing what's on topic and what isn't.

      As for your terms, you had said:

      "And when I ask just-plain-folks who use the internet, the rate drops below 20%, and in the public at large, it's around 10% of internet users who know this."

      So when you say "'the public at large' includes a number of people who do not use the internet in any significant way" -- that segment you already eliminated by definition in the previous sentence, by specifying the internet users in the public at large.

      So what's the difference between just-plain-folks who use the Internet (somewhat under 20% of whom know Ctrl-F) and the Internet users among the public at large (~10% of whom know Ctrl-F)?

      Perhaps you unintentionally included or excluded a couple of words in the original sentence, or transposed a phrase?

      Thank you!

  3. For the past two weeks, I've been teaching 6th graders some search strategies I learned from the Power Searching with Google class. I'm using examples related to research projects they're doing, stringing several operators together to narrow down searches. When I show Ctrl-F, EVERY teacher comments(or gasps loudly) that they'd never seen this before. A classic example of the Dunning-Kruger effect!

    I've told every class that for the first time, I am giving them homework: to go home and show their parents Ctrl-F. I'll be sharing this post as well!

  4. Export of tables in pdfs with text recognition directly to excel. I didn't know I didn't know it but once I knew it, it changed my life in terms of data entry from old environmental reports.

  5. With computer and tech stuff I always assume there is a quicker way to do things and use google to find them. I think having grown up with dos/unix/command prompt based systems makes those of us who are older more likely to look for keyboard shortcuts.

    I've known about ctrl-f forever is seems. The things I don't know mostly have to do with smart phones and touch screens (how do I copy and paste? or is there an equivalent to right clicking?) I don't use my phone for those kind of things often enough to have gone looking for answers yet, but I assume they are out there.

    1. On Android, usually a long-press (click on some text and hold your finger there for a full second) will bring up an options menu--including copy/paste...

  6. I'm a reasonably fast reader--I scan well, and I guess I never missed knowing this item. I am inclined to think I'd rather scan than use this. Maybe I'll try it.
    That said, I don't know how to find a lot of things that I want to. For example, one website I go to starts off looking secure. There is https: at the top. There is a closed padlock symbol in the lower right hand corner. But once I start to type in my password, the lock changes to a red background, and the lock is split vertically. I called the website, talked with a tech person, and he assured me that all is fine coming from them. I would really like to know what is going on. Is my data secure? He said something about my browser. I have no idea what I should do.

  7. I've known about CMD-F for a long time using Firefox. It's only been a few years that I found out it was pretty universal within applications. On a similar note, using a Mac, clicking a file in Finder and then hitting the space bar previews that file. It works for images, PDF's, Word documents, etc... It's one of the first things I learned when I got my Mac. And using the space bar in Adobe Bridge will make a full screen preview of an image file too.

  8. Okay, I'm a dinosaur but I learned the internet using telnet, then Veronica and Archie, then Gopher. One thing that taught me is to check out *anything* that appears to be "help". All of the browsers I've used have a menu across the top, and I always look at those menus when I first start using it. Where is save and print? What other helpful tools are there. Under "edit" is often where you find the search feature and you can click on that word, or, if you pay attention you will see the keystroke shortcut listed.

    Yes, I'm a librarian and I do this often but I show it to students on a regular basis, I also show them the "quotes" around search terms to narrow searches. They don't know it instinctively but boy, are they ever happy to learn these simple tricks.

  9. your astonishment is astounding

  10. I'm part of the between generation, learning to use a computer as libraries began to use them.
    Today I appreciated your Ctrl F. Who knew? I didn't.