Monday, May 30, 2011

Expert blind spots, and an interesting model of understanding

Wiggins & McTighe describe the expert blind spot as a failure to think critically about foundational ideas. Once we accept an idea and begin to build on it, it becomes that much harder to change that idea. It's difficult to reach pipes that we have poured a concrete foundation around. But, I'd like to explore another aspect of the blind spot.

I ran into an interesting article called the Conscious Competence Model. Imagine that you have learned a skill, but do not remember learning that skill. For example, I learned to swim before I can remember - about 3 or 4 years old. So, I have developed a skill that I am unable to teach, because I don't remember learning that skill - I have only hazy vignette memories that far back. This is true, because I've tried to teach children how to swim. It's a little like trying to describe how to speak. I can demonstrate a sound, or demonstrate a couple swimming strokes. I can even move the person's arms in the water while holding them afloat. But, the couple times I've tried to teach a kid how to swim have been pretty dismal failures, mainly because I don't remember how I learned. But, instead of regressing back to conscious competence where we remember the learning process, what's needed is a 5th level of reflective competence, supporting the axiom that a teacher also learns. Chapman (2010) suggests we might even call this category "re-conscious competence."

So, one expert blind spot resides in unconscious competence. We become so used to doing a skill that we forget how to teach it. Furthermore, we assume that students begin in the conscious incompetence category (#2). This is not true, and it creates a disconnect in learning, because the student is not only unaware that they are unaware (unconscious incompetence), but actually resists the notion that there is more to learn. In a construct analogy, the student has built a roof on their building of earlier skills and begun to add air conditioners, vents, and shingles. Thus, we see resistance to the move from calculator math to algebra, because the student doesn't want to tear the roof off and start building again. For example, the student has learned four basic operations for whole numbers, fractions, and decimals, and believes a calculator will support them the rest of the way through life. They are completely (and truly) unaware of the main idea of secondary education math. In a sense, these students have climbed one ladder to a plateau, but are not even aware that there is another cliff, and another ladder. How can we begin to teach if the student is unaware that there's something to learn?

I would suggest that there is another circle connecting to unconscious competence (bottom right of illustration) which I would label as unconscious complacency, or perhaps a return to unconscious incompetence. This circle would represent those who have not kept up with changes, or who have become complacent in what they think they know. You're an expert driver, but you might still succumb to the danger of inattention because you are unconsciously competent. An expert skydiver forgets the fear of their first dive, and many lose the same sense of caution. Or, how many times have we heard some incompetent moron proclaim that they have twenty years of experience when any outside observer would agree that the moron is making things worse? This gradual reversion represents another expert blind spot, and a potential trap any of us can fall into without continuing education. This unconscious complacency is similar to that described by Wiggins & McTighe in our reading, where we write our assumptions in stone, build our construct around it, and then fail to challenge the foundation.

So, we have three expert blind spots.
  1. We have a blind spot when we are not conscious of the learning process from the learner's point of view - a failure to move into reflexive or re-conscious competence.
  2. We have a blind spot when we fail to realize that a student is not conscious of their incompetence, particularly if we fail to make the transition to reflexive or re-conscious competence ourselves.
  3. And we have a blind spot if we fail to progress, where time and progress dictate that we gradually move back to unconscious incompetence through complacency.
Reference Chapman, A. (2010). Retrieved May 30, 2011 from Diagram courtesy of Will Taylor, Chair, Department of Homeopathic Medicine, National College of Natural Medicine, Portland, Oregon, USA, March 2007.

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