Becoming Competent: A Habit of Mind—October, 2018

What does it mean to be competent? Years ago, a man by the name of Martin M. Broadwell described a model of teaching that contained four stages of competence. Others have built on and modified his work, but stated simply, Broadwell believed in these four stages:

  • Unconscious incompetence describes those individuals who do not know how to do a particular task and are unaware that they don’t know. (They may seem to weather any storm, but it is often because they are unaware there is a storm.)
  • Conscious incompetence is defined by those who are unable to perform a given task, but recognize they are unable to do so and want to learn. They do so by practicing and making mistakes. This leads them to the next stage.
  • Conscious competence is the proper stage for those who can do the task, but must focus on performing the task in order to do it correctly. After performing the actions correctly and repetitively, the individual reaches the final stage.
  • Unconscious competence describes those who have practiced performing the task so much that it has become automatic. (Such a person may be able to teach the skill to others if they can remember what it was like to be incompetent and educate accordingly.)

Becoming competent requires, among other things, that a person actually desires to learn; there must be some level of curiosity. We live in an age when curiosity can often be immediately satisfied by looking on a smartphone. What’s the capital of Paraguay? No need to pull out the encyclopedia—just Google it! (It’s Asunción, by the way.) When is high tide? Ask Siri. (As I write this, I see that it will be at 10:00 p.m. tonight.) Having easy access to such “factoids” is both convenient and helpful.

However, I sometimes worry that having such facts at our fingertips gives us a false sense of competence. We might be damaging our desire and ability to look beyond the easy answer. When appropriate, we must be consciously incompetent and know enough to ask the deeper questions. Such curiosity is, in large part, a defining characteristic of humanity. Long ago, our ancestors had to be unconsciously competent in hunting and gathering food. In our knowledge economy, we need to be unconsciously competent not only in hunting and gathering information, but also in interpreting and questioning that information.

Autonomous vehicles will soon be a reality. Suppose that a self-driving car were to encounter an emergency situation and had to “decide” whether it was better to hit vehicle “A” or vehicle “B”. Prior to deploying such cars on the road, we might be curious about such things as:

  • Who will write the algorithm that will allow the car’s artificial intelligence to evaluate this type of decision?
  • Who decides that the programmers are qualified to write such code?
  • Do consumers have a right to know the process the car uses to make the decision?
  • Do owners of such a car have a moral obligation to ensure they are informed regarding the decisions their vehicle will make on their behalf?

None of these questions are specifically “Googleable.” Answers to questions such as these require that 1) we are curious enough about our world to make such queries in the first place and 2) that we value being informed at more than a surface level. In addition, we must either be sufficiently well-read to respond intelligently or we must know where we might look to find more comprehensive information. None of these traits flow naturally from the “easy answer” culture in which we currently find ourselves. Instead, they are habits of mind that must be developed.

This type of curiosity and desire for competence must be taught at home and at school, so that it may be learned by our young people. If adults are to have any hope of helping our youth navigate the false promise of easy answers and the seemingly endless seas of information, we must become unconsciously competent in modeling those behaviors. We cannot simply consult a single source of news and consider ourselves well-informed. It is not enough to follow the herd, even if that herd is large and we have a history of being well-served by it. Thomas Jefferson once opined that “knowledge is power, knowledge is safety, and knowledge is happiness.” We have a responsibility to our kids to teach the proper role of knowledge; our complex world requires complex thinking, and our kids deserve to be so taught.

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