Living in a state of conscious incompetence

learning-path2Source of image:

Thoughts about conscious incompetence came to mind in the light of Bonnie Stewart’s recent blog post – The Story of Education: A Grimm Fairytale  in which she recounts her loss of her blogging voice and how she feels that her voice has been ‘wrong-footed and is shaky’. I don’t want to oversimplify her post. You will need to read and interpret it for yourself, but I did wonder whether her recent entry into the academic world of a PhD student – “I did not fully understand the extent to which my own voice and formal Academic Writing did not/would not mix” had pushed her into the conscious incompetence zone. (This of course raises all sorts of questions about academic writing, but I don’t want to go there just now).

I have heard others speak about losing their blogging voice and wonder if they too have been pushed into the zone of conscious incompetence in some way.

I feel as though I live in a permanent state of conscious incompetence and I wonder how much this is to do with working so much online, having Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Flickr and other accounts, following people’s blogs, participating in MOOCs etc.

It seems that I am constantly reminded of what I don’t know and how little I know, in the face of so much information about what other people do seem to know.

The internet is a great leveler. I have worked for most of my life in education, but only online for the last 14 years or so. Before that I worked either in schools, or with students in Higher Education, and was, for the most part, blissfully unaware of expertise beyond my limited circles. When teaching school children, although I could easily recognize those children who were brighter than me and would definitely go further, I had the advantage of age and life experience. Even with students in Higher Education I had this advantage. But in recent years my work has been ‘out there’ in the big wide world and it is difficult not to be conscious of your incompetence.

At the ALT2013 conference which I recently attended, I briefly discussed this with Stephen Downes, who was a keynote speaker for the conference. His response (one to remember) was that there will always be people ‘out there’ who know things that you don’t, no matter what your reputation and level of expertise, but it’s worth holding on to the fact that you will always know something that they don’t. So maybe this is what is meant by the internet being a great leveler and maybe conscious incompetence in these terms isn’t so bad!

6 thoughts on “Living in a state of conscious incompetence

  1. Scott Johnson October 24, 2013 / 11:28 pm

    Hi Jenny,

    I’ll hold on reading Bonnie’s blog until my thinking is clear. Loss of voice can come from a number directions and one can be from people who insist the you speak to them in their language instead of celebrating in a language most expressive of your uniqueness.

    To me the cut-off is people can be very wrong, unconscious of it and should avoid judgement–casting the first stone. Putting yourself out there without the formal protections that come with membership is a vulnerable position to be in. Brave too. Change is unforgiving, it offers no confident conclusions or proven paths–it’s just what you know against stuff that’s been tested and approved.

  2. jennymackness October 25, 2013 / 7:08 am

    Thanks for your comment Scott. 🙂

  3. Bon October 27, 2013 / 5:14 pm

    Jenny…thanks for this thoughtful frame for my own crisis of sorts, such as it is. more of a surprised realization, I think: a “wait! How’d I get HERE?” sort of feeling. But the visual you posted here and the work behind it (I fell down the rabbit hole) gave me a whole new way of interpreting the experience.

    One of the pieces I’m still grappling with is whether or not being an “open educator” means, effectively, living the rest of my career/practice in this very exposed state. I tend to think of myself as a person who’s mostly okay with knowing that i don’t know – my career seems to have always led in directions that are clearly marginal to the mainstream, so I’m used to juggling multiple perspectives and assuming there are others out there – but I think what may have happened recently is between the whole academic writing experience and MOOCs I came up against so many totalizing worldviews that I just…shut down. It’s exhausting – and sanctimonious – to have to begin every interaction with the reminder that it’s *possible* that there are other perspectives from which to view the topic Person X has just pronounced on.

    I think if we all approached networked communications from a position of conscious incompetence, it’d be great. Otherwise, It feels like a lot of us are speaking in the open, but with closed minds.

  4. jennymackness October 28, 2013 / 9:58 am

    Hi Bonnie – I find the notion of different writing ‘voices’ for different audiences, and different attitudes to openness in relation to these voices interesting. A couple of years ago I came up against it in some work that I was doing and wrote about it here – Looking back at that, it seems that openly sharing alternative perspectives can be perceived of as potentially having your ideas ‘stolen’.

    All this relates to the fact that openness really is a ‘state of mind’ to quote Martin Weller. Carmen Tschofen and I wrote about the psychological dimension of openness in our paper – Connectivism and Dimensions of Individual Experience – and I have noticed that recently others are becoming more interested in this dimension too.

    It does seem to me ‘from my outsider persepctive’, that doing a PhD or any type of ‘academic’ work within the hallowed walls of an HE institution might militate against openness, or make openness more exhausting than it might otherwise be, but some bloggers seem to manage to leverage their blogs to support their PHD work – some names immediately come to mind for me, as I’m sure they do for you.

    And one final thing your comments have reminded me of is that I am always so impressed by those PhDs that seem to manage to combine both voices or multiple voices – the open, creative, free flowing blogging voice with the more constrained academic voice and present their PhDs in very creative formats.

    Hope you will continue blogging and that you don’t lose your creative style.


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