I attended UW Madison’s one-day IT Leadership Conference today, and finished off the day with a breakout session where an opening slide featured the “steps of competency” from a novice to an expert. The steps of competency are not new to me - we cover them (indirectly) in the Software/Data Carpentry Instructor Training. In brief, they are:
- unconscious incompetency: a novice who doesn’t even know what questions to ask to start understanding something.
- conscious incompetency: someone who has some idea of what they don’t know, but still can’t really do the task at hand.
- conscious competency: a practioner who knows enough to get the job done and has enough resources to fill in for what they don’t know.
- unconcious competency: the expert who “just knows” the answer and can use words like “obviously”
In the instructor training, we talk about the negative side of that last stage - unconcious competency - as it manifests in an expert blind spot. As a teacher, it’s my job to unearth my unconscious competencies, so that I can see what I take for granted, and where learners will struggle. A simple example when teaching computing is typing speed. I type without thinking - but not all learners do. As a teacher, I have to recognize that blind spot in me and adjust my typing speed accordingly, so I don’t overwhelm my learners.
However, aside from its unhelpfulness in teaching, I’ve always assumed that the pursuit of competency is a good thing. Even on the slide today, the steps to unconscious competency were exactly that - steps, moving upward. The goal for the learner is always to be moving up those steps, maybe, hopefully, reaching that expert level.
For no particular reason, today I stopped and thought about those assumptions: that the goal of life + learning is always competency, and that competency is good. And I realized that these assumptions are not always true.
There are lots of things we can learn, and in which we can become competent. Programming, sure. Management, leadership, yes! But what if the thing you are learning is something like trolling? Manipulation? Dominating the conversation? Sarcastic, biting remarks? Those things are learned too, just like the bash shell and scripting, and with practice, they can become areas of unconscious competence - blind spots.
I think a lot of mental health treatment aims to expose our less outwardly malicious, but still destructive blind spots. Mental health care unmasks the unconcious competencies (that we’ve learned so successfully!) that harm us, like refusing to ask for help, assuming that everyone is thinking the worst of us, or using unhealthy strategies to cope with life.
Blind spots aren’t just an issue for teachers to consider - they can be a problem for all of us, and they show that pure competency is not enough. Competency in what matters. Competency in service of what end matters. It matters for ourselves and for the people around us.
For me, this is a new way to frame my love of learning. I love to learn and as a result I do want to be unconciously competent at a lot of things. But before diving into a new learning experience, I now think I’ll want to ask myself: what does an “unconsciously comptetent” person with this knowledge look like? And do I want to be that person?