Learning and ignorance

‘Education is that which reveals to the wise, and conceals from the stupid, the vast limits of their knowledge.’ Mark Twain

I find it reassuring to know that learning (whether it’s learning to speak a language or ride a bike) is a process. Even a simple skill or a small amount of information takes effort and time to get embeded in our minds or our bodies. To express this in terms of the brain – it takes practice to create new neural pathways.

For this reason, I like The Four Stages of Learning. If you don’t know them, they are:

  1. Unconscious incompetence – I don’t know that there is a language called French.
  2. Conscious incompetence – I know there is a language called French, but I don’t speak it.
  3. Conscious competence – I speak French but I have to concentrate hard to do so.
  4. Unconscious competence – I can speak French without having to think about it.

For me, the greatest value lies in being reminded that we might be at the conscious competence for some time, but that unconscious competence  is just a matter of time and practice.

The Four Stages model also serves to remind us that there is plenty we don’t know – or don’t yet know. And, as Mark Twain points out, wisdom lies in understanding how little we know.

And being wise in this sense helps us to avoid the arrogance of thinking we know it all. Simon Wardley’s Three Stage of Expertise reminds us of the foolishness of this. The Three Stages are:

  1. Beginners – I know nothing, I don’t yet know much.
  2. Hazard – I’m an expert, I know all there is to know.
  3. Expert – I know little, I know there is lots more to know.

See here for more information.

Mark Twain would, I think, like the idea of an expert as someone who knows nothing!






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