You don't know what you don't know

March 6, 2019

“Your incompetence is preventing you from seeing your incompetence.”


Have you ever wondered why I blog so much, when it makes me zero income, and takes a fair amount of my time? The answer is simple, but ties in to the above statement: I am aware that I am not a particularly good writer, but in order to improve I have to write. I accept that I will sometimes write poorly, as part of my education. The more I know about writing, the more I realize how little I actually know.




However, this is an article about kayaking, so let me give some other examples and use a different models to illustrate it.


Have you ever had a student who self rated themselves so highly that you were expecting great things, only to be surprised by their performance? Have you ever wondered why they rated themselves so highly? Has this student ever been YOU? It is a classic example of the Dunning-Kruger effect.


What is the Dunning Kruger effect?


Wiki Definition:


In the field of psychology, the Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which people of low ability have illusory superiority and mistakenly assess their cognitive ability as greater than it is.


In 2016 Rob started training in sea kayaking. He took a number of courses and also started doing downwind runs with me. He had some swims, and lots of combat rolls. He headed off to Autumn Gales that year self-rating as an “intermediate-to-advanced paddler.” He therefore opted into the second highest level group going out on the second of the three days. Things didn’t go as planned. As he processed the event in the aftermath, he realized just how little he actually knew. To use an industry buzzword: he became a conscious incompetent. He was suddenly aware that there were vast areas of knowledge and skill that he was lacking.







The Four Stages of Competence, aka The Stages of Learning:



   1. Unconscious incompetence


The individual does not understand or know how to do something and does not necessarily recognize the deficit. They may deny the usefulness of the skill. The individual must recognize their own incompetence, and the value of the new skill, before moving on to the next stage. The length of time an individual spends in this stage depends on the strength of the stimulus to learn.[5]


    2. Conscious incompetence


Though the individual does not understand or know how to do something, they recognize the deficit, as well as the value of a new skill in addressing the deficit. The making of mistakes can be integral to the learning process at this stage.


    3. Conscious competence


The individual understands or knows how to do something. However, demonstrating the skill or knowledge requires concentration. It may be broken down into steps, and there is heavy conscious involvement in executing the new skill


   4. Unconscious competence

The individual has had so much practice with a skill that it has become "second nature" and can be performed easily. As a result, the skill can be performed while executing another task. The individual may be able to teach it to others, depending upon how and when it was learned.




This year I’ve really become aware that learners tend to bounce back and forth between unconscious and conscious incompetence, followed by conscious competence. The learner tends to go from one to the other as they are exposed, process, and practice. The final stage, unconscious competence, comes most slowly, with lots and lots of time in boat.


This was an “ah ha!” moment for me. I now understand that when a student declares mastery of a skill it likely indicates a certain level of Dunning-Kruger effect. They don’t know what they don’t know, and this intrigues me. I want participate in their journey towards knowledge, and my own as well, because there is still so much I just don’t know.




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