Active, involved citizens are life-long learners and life-long mentors. Life-long learners are people who recognize that learning is a combination of knowledge and experience. Knowledge (the acquisition of information and the logical application of that information) is always affected by life’s experiences. And experience is always affected by one’s knowledge—and both are in a state of flux. Therefore, our lives are in an evolving equilibrium. It takes constant introspection to realize that we are changing (or should be changing) our responses to events and people over the years, based on new knowledge and experience. I’m convinced that we should never be content with only so much knowledge and experience. More knowledge enhances our experiences, and more experience enhances our knowledge base, throughout our entire lives.
While reading an article recently about racial injustice in medicine and the path forward, I was struck by the author’s reference to the four stages of adult learning (as proposed by psychologist Noel Burch). They are 1) unconscious incompetence, 2) conscious incompetence, 3) conscious competence, and 4) unconscious competence. I absolutely love this paradigm and I think it beautifully describes effective life-long learning.
Let me explain. First, we are initially at the stage in life (usually in adolescence or young adulthood) where we don’t know what we don’t know. We are unaware (unconscious) of so many things in our society and environment and are therefore really ineffective in being a positive influence (essentially incompetent to the task at hand). Second, we learn about conditions or situations in our communities that demand our attention (we are now conscious) but we might struggle in seeking solutions (we are admittedly still incompetent). Third, we recognize the issues that demand our attention to improve our lives, the lives of others and the life of our community (we are aware [conscious] of the task at hand) and we are making bona fide attempts to address those issues (showing some degree of competence). And then the fourth level of adult learning can finally emerge. At that level, we have internalized the issues that we are trying to improve (it has become unconscious) and exhibit a certain degree of competence whenever we engage.
It would be naïve to assume that someone goes through each stage in this process and arrives at the end (in a state of unconscious competence) for every issue. In point of fact, we vacillate back-and-forth often between stages. We are human. We need to constantly review our ability to learn and improve. This is essence of life-long learning.
A classic example might be our ability to understand systemic racism. Having grown up in a white household, I was unaware of so many issues that confront people of color (unconsciously incompetent). As I became educated, learning about the past inhumanities exhibited toward others and now witnessing the persistent inequities in our society, I find it my duty to work toward positive solutions and not just assume that someone else will do the good work. During this process, I am now progressing from conscious incompetence to conscious competence. My goal is to be able to get to stage 4 (unconscious competence) but I recognize that I will have to continue to be an engaged life-long learner to make that happen.
I think those that “achieve” unconscious competence are the sages in our society who have learned so many lessons and now prepared to be the role models for the next generation. These sages are those that are our mentors, our mobilizers, our monitors, our mediators and our motivators. These are the folks that by their actions set the positive example for us all. In the example above, these folks recognize that racism is still covert and overt in our society, and they seek to be actively involved in the discussions by confronting the issues at hand and actively involved in the possible solutions. Let us all be life-long learners.