Friday, November 6, 2009

Knowledge, consciousness, and curses

Both unconscious ignorance and unconscious knowledge are curses. Conscious knowledge is best.

On Wednesday I presented a project called The Technical Speech at my Toastmasters club. The objective was to convert a technical paper or technical material into an 8 to 10 minute speech. The topic was the coil springs used on valves in car or truck engines. There were three major process improvements that have been made in the past eighty years. I lost some of my audience, and my speech also ran over the time limit.

In preparing this speech I was fighting with what has been called the Curse of Knowledge. The curse happens when you are unaware that your audience does not know what you know. You can read about it in an excerpt from Chip and Dan Heath’s book, Made to Stick. (Start just above the heading on Tappers and Listeners).

Even with a conscious effort, it is difficult for me to think back to when I did not know a lot about coil springs. On my bookshelf there is a book on Quality of Coil Springs that was written by two individuals at the Daimler Benz laboratory in Stuttgart. I also referred to a more recent technical article from the Kobe Steel Company.

The Curse of Knowledge is an oversimplification of a situation that is better described by four stages of competence, as are shown above.

The worst stage is unconscious incompetence, where you don’t even realize that you don’t know. Bob Sutton recently discussed how this lack of knowledge can lead to flawed self-evaluations. One example is the residents of the mythical town of Lake Wobegon on the Prairie Home Companion radio show, who believe that all their children are above average.

A somewhat better stage is conscious incompetence, where you realize that you don’t know and thus are ready to learn.

Then there is unconscious competence, where you have knowledge but are unaware. Although you are capable you have not thought about the topic enough. You can do something, but probably can’t teach it well.

Finally there is conscious competence where you not only have knowledge, but still understand what it was like not to have it. Now you are ready to actually teach, or speak clearly to the general public.

Some otherwise brilliant people get stuck at unconscious competence. In my freshman year of college I took a very frustrating introductory course on computer programming. The lectures were given by the head of the Computer Science department at Carnegie-Mellon. Alan Perlis truly was a genius, but his lectures were aimed way above most of the audience. They largely were quite bright sophomore students of science or engineering. Fortunately two of the three weekly sessions were handled by his teaching assistants. They learned to recap his lectures in more understandable terms. Perlis wrote 120 epigrams about programming.

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