Saturday, June 28, 2008

Understanding what I do not understand

Sometime ago, I attended a training which revealed an interesting theory on 4-stages of learning (i.e. the process of gaining competence from incompetence).

Stage 1: unconscious incompetence
Stage 2: conscious incompetence
Stage 3: conscious competence
Stage 4: unconscious competence

The best way to describe these few stages is to consider driving lessons as an example. At stage 1, you do not know what are the skills required for driving. At stage 2, after attending some classes, you now know what are the skills you lack (traffic law and the principle of balancing clutch and accelerator, etc) and thus are conscious of your incompetence. Then comes stage 3, where after numerous hands-on lessons, you are now prepared to take the on-the-road examination and pass. At this stage, although competent, you are still very fully aware of what you are doing. But after driving for years, driving becomes an instinct. Pulling brakes, stepping on the accelerator, balancing on the cliff, all these comes naturally to you (subconsciously). At this time, you are at stage 4 - performing your task without fully aware of it.

It'd be intrinsically implied that the transition from stage 1 to 2 and stage 3 to 4 is a natural progress. For the former, all that is required is for someone to inform you of your incompetence. And for the latter, all that is required is constant practice.

However, the same can't be said of the transition from stage 2 to 3. Because, simply said, it is not a natural progress to become from incompetent to competent. In fact, I'd like to argue that there will be an important transitional stage here, which I will call it - understanding what you do not understand. I think, this is the most frustrating stage of all learning processes.

Let me cite you an example, drawn from my recent personal experience.

I'm studying micro-magnetics in preparation for my PhD later this year. Now, I'm definitely conscious of my incompetence in this area and I'm trying very hard to achieve competence by reading a lot of texts in this area. As I read, I came across sentences such as this:

"..the competitive effects of the micromagnetic energy contributions upon minimization determine the equilibrium distribution of the magnetization..."


I understand EVERY SINGLE word of it.

But when I put them together, What the %@$%& does it mean??

This, is the classical case of me not understanding what I do not understand. And how am I going to gain competence through this?

I realised that I am not alone in such situations. Many people have problems expressing what they do not understand. It is very often difficult to express what you do not know into a valid question. And when we fail to do that, we cannot seek to gain competence or ask guidance from someone else, as no one (including yourself) would know what you do not understand.

No comments: