Critical Consciousness – Part IV

Conscientiously Knowing

By Jorge D. H. Prósperi

Criticality has never promoted the KISS principle because it advocates dismantling information, tedious observation, ongoing research and scrutinizing findings. The process is necessarily taxing, tedious and time-consuming. Criticality neither dodges nor avoids the toughest of questions and issues. It does not abruptly interrupt in order to silence reason; but rather it prompts, nudges, advocates analysis and is comfortable with constructive criticism.

When it comes to knowledge, there are some questions that jump-start the process in order to identify the truth. Let’s begin with – what don’t we know that we don’t know? What are the blind spots that we don’t even know exist? How do we even determine that we don’t know? What processes do we use to access knowledge and knowing? What are the foundations for our opinions and beliefs? How do we determine the veracity of our beliefs?

In psychology, there are four stages of competence, or the “conscious competence model” in the learning of a skill. They are Unconscious incompetence, Conscious incompetence, Conscious competence and Unconscious competence.

As human beings, we are ever dealing with a conscious and/or unconscious state of being. Knowledge is consciously and unconsciously being addressed on an instance by instance basis. So, can learning a skill and addressing knowledge be equated? Is learning how to pursue knowledge a skill?

Unconscious Incompetence: The individual does not know how to do something and does not necessarily recognize the deficit. They may deny the usefulness of the skill. The individual does not recognize their incompetence. They may be stuck on this level without stimuli to learn.

But how does one learn when learning is not encouraged, made available or prioritized? As for knowledge, unconscious incompetence takes place when the individual does not know what s/he does not know. This can be by happenstance or by living in constructed bubbles, silos or echo chambers lacking awareness and open-mindedness. Opinions and beliefs are affirmed by those of similar thinking (confirmation bias). Avoiding knowledge could be by choice, thought to be detrimental, confrontational or due to fearing the process of retrospection and change.

Conscious Incompetence: Though the individual does not understand or know how to do something (a skill), they recognize the deficit, as well as the value of a new skill in addressing the deficit. The making of mistakes is an integral part of the learning process and not feared.

In respect to knowledge, although the individual may not understand how to pursue knowledge, the deficit is recognized and valued. The pursuit of knowledge may be haphazard and frustrating, yet repeated attempts to seek knowledge can be instrumental in developing confidence to inquiry and persevere. Unawareness and ignorance are replaced by the choice to know rather than confirming established biases. Self-reflection is not feared.

Conscious Competence: The individual understands, learns, knows how to do the skill. However, consistency in demonstrating the skill and sophisticated knowledge requires concentration. The process may be broken down into steps. There is tedious conscious involvement in executing the new skill successfully. The individual may run into plateaus of learning requiring confidence building, mentoring and enhanced instruction.

As to knowledge, the individual begins to realize that s/he doesn’t know and the deficit is recognized – this is the first step in the difficult process of ongoing retrospection and reconstruction. Ignorance and doubt is exposed and becomes uncomfortable – self debate lingers not satisfied with simplistic assumptions and talking points. Benevolent skepticism emerges replacing negative absolute thinking and dogma. Listening to different new voices becomes, not only tolerable, but pursued. 

Unconscious Competence: The individual practices and performs the skill competently. The skill becomes “second nature” and can be performed at will – not because it is ever taken for granted, but because the learning is applied correctly via established standards and norms.  The skill can be performed while executing another task. The individual may be able to teach segments of the learned skill to others, depending on how and when the skill was learned. Authentic confidence emerges outside of comfort zones without the need for validation, recognition and encouragement.

Seeking and critically pursuing knowledge becomes “second nature” and applied when reading, writing, listening and speaking as language is prioritized and matters. Opinions, ideas and theories are questioned as to their veracity, genesis, reasoning, logic and intent. Critical questions are ever present: What is the nature of the knowledge being expressed? Who does it benefit? Who is left out? Who is at the table of discourse as to gender, minorities and points of views? Are counterstories made available? Whose language and presence has value? Are oppressive -isms and phobias expressed covertly, overtly and/or adversely?  The individual begins to understand why they did not know and how to authenticate past and current knowledge. The process of knowing is not considered an event, but an ongoing life-long process. The lenses of Epistemology, Critical Thinking, Critical Pedagogy and Critical Research Methods are used to enhance credibility and trust by authenticating, amplifying and sharing knowledge. The individual makes knowledge available freely and transparently in order to empower others in their pursuit of knowledge and truth.

As the American poet William Stafford would remind,

“For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give – yes or no, or maybe – should be clear;
the darkness around us is deep.”