Unskilled and unaware of it

While doing my undergrad at Dal, I read an article called “Unskilled and unaware of it“. The article blew my mind at the time, and the authors have come out with several updates in response to criticism and further debate. Well worth following up! The jist of the article is the idea that someone who isn’t very good at doing something is unable to accurately assess their abilities in that area. For example, if your skills at writing English aren’t any good, you are unable to say with any accuracy whether a piece of your own writing (or anyone else’s writing) is any good.

Seems like a fairly obvious statement, but I (and probably you) frequently encounter people who don’t think this applies to them. An easy example is the student who can’t produce a coherent sentence,  but can’t understand why their mark is so low. They, of course, really do not see the problems with their own writing – they don’t have the skills necessary to assess their own work accurately.

The second element of this failure to assess accurately (and I don’t remember if this was brought up in the original article – I’ve certainly seen it elsewhere) is the tendency everyone has to assess themselves inaccurately. Many people, in today’s culture of rampant narcissism, regularly assess themselves higher than they should (witness the never-ending cavalcade of  untalented people who are willing to make fools of themselves exhibiting their non-talent on TV talent shows). Others assess themselves more harshly than they should, for whatever reason. There is a host of studies that show large groups of people, on average, assess themselves as being above average (sometimes called the Lake Wobegon effect, after Garrison Keillor’s fictional town). On the whole, it seems, it is pretty rare for one to be able to take a clear look at one’s own abilities, talents, and so forth.

This is important, in the end, for one simple reason. It is impossible to teach anyone anything until they realize that they have a need to learn. When your default assessment of yourself is that you can handle whatever comes your way, that you know it all (or enough), that whatever you don’t know can’t be that important anyway, you are not likely to pay too much attention to anyone telling you how to do something new. After all, you already know everything you need to … don’t you?