Wednesday, June 24, 2020

WEDNESDAY WISDOM: The Unconscious-Competent Gardener


"The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge."  Daniel J. Boorstin 

I received a message a few days ago from my sister-in-law Becky, who lives in Madison, Mississippi. It read:

Scott, I have a question for you. I recall your posting pictures of some beautiful veggies you had grown. Some were incredibly large. Could you tell me how you got them to grow so big? Did you have your soil tested and add amendments? Did you use a special fertilizer? I love to garden, but my yield and my flowers are less than I would desire. Thanks a lot!!

I thought about her question that whole day, but didn't respond because I wasn't sure what to say.  

The next day she sent me the same message. (Becky is nothing if not persistent.) I realized that evasion or procrastination would not work in this setting, so I called her right away to confess that I was unclear how to answer her. Our conversation went something like this:

Me: So, what's happening, Becky?

Becky: I'm disappointed and getting frustrated with the results of my gardening. Everything I raise seems to be puny and I'm not getting much yield. I was hoping you could give me some pointers. You seem to get great results.

As she was speaking, my mind flashed back to some past successes I'd had in the garden.

Me: Becky, are you familiar with the term "unconscious competent"?

Becky: No, what does it mean?

Me: It means someone who is successful but who does not know what caused his success, or at least he lacks sufficient understanding to teach someone else how to duplicate that success.

Becky: Oh no. Are you saying that's what you are? I find that hard to believe.

Me: Yes, I'm afraid so. Since we moved to Harmony in 2007, I've had gardens in three locations. I first started gardening at the Pratt's community garden and rent-a-row. I'm pretty sure they had had their soil tested. Nancy and Allan told us to add lots of peat moss before turning over the soil, and then to work in a balanced granular fertilizer during the growing season. When I had a garden in the Harmony community garden and in my own backyard raised beds, I just did the same thing. Usually it worked, but sometimes it didn't.   

Becky: So when it didn't work, you couldn't see that you'd done anything differently?

Me: Not that I could identify. That's what's frustrating about being an unconscious competent - it works great when it works but you don't know how to fix it if it doesn't.

Becky: Then what do you think I should do?

Me: I would say, go get your soil tested and follow the Extension Service's advice. They're the real experts. Sorry to be so unhelpful.
* * * * *


In certain theories of education and learning, there are four levels. Learners or trainees tend to begin at stage 1, called "unconscious incompetence," in which the person is not aware of the existence or relevance of the skill area.

They pass through stage 2, "conscious incompetence," where they become aware of their deficiency in the skill area,

At stage 3, "conscious competence," the person can perform the skill reliably at will but needs to concentrate on it in order to perform the skill; the skill is not yet second nature or automatic.

The fourth step in this paradigm is called "unconscious competence." This signifies the ability to do something well without thinking about it. The skill has become almost automatic. In most learning models, "unconscious competent" is said to be the highest level of achievement.  

However, I disagree with that point of view. To me, there's another step, a fifth level. This highest level is the ability to not only do something well and intuitively, but to also explain to another what you're doing and why, and to figure out how to progress and improve your methodology in doing it.  

Dr. Lorgene A. Mata looks at it the same way I do. He wrote:  

I believe the highest level of competence learning is not level 4, "unconscious competence", but a higher 5th level. At this level, the person has not only mastered the physical skill to a high degree that does not require conscious execution of the skill but he also comprehends the what, when, how and why of his own skill and [is thus] able to improve on how it is acquired and learned. He is thereby able to teach the skill to others in a manner that is effective and expedient.  

Dr. Linda Gilbert echoes these ideas:

This "fifth stage of learning" indicates a stage where you can operate with fluency yourself on an instinctive level, but are ALSO able to articulate what you are doing for yourself and others. Many people never reach it - we all know experts who can't tell you how they're doing what they're doing.

* * * * *

So back to my own gardening.
Although I have reached Level 4 - unconscious competent - as evidenced by my ability over the years to produce some wonderful vegetables, I have not yet reached Level 5, which I call Mastery. At the Mastery level, I would be able to grow large and abundant crops just about every time, and I could adjust my horticulture whenever my approach was a little out of kilter or I found myself in a somewhat different environment. And just as importantly, I could explain to Becky (or anybody else) what they ought to do to achieve the same results I have.

I am not there yet, although to an outsider I might appear to be.  

Knowing that about myself is what made me reluctant to return Becky's call. I didn't want to reveal myself as an Unconscious Competent when she thought I was a Master Gardener. That would require climbing down from my pedestal and acknowledging my shortcomings. Oh vanity!

Sorry, Becky, I can't tell you how to fix your problem. I learned a successful pattern of fertilizing from the Pratts, but if that approach doesn't work, I'm lost. At Level 4, I have not yet figured out the what, when, how and why of gardening success, especially as it pertains to soil types, soil deficiencies, and soil additives like peat moss, fertilizers, and the like. Add to that the challenges of dealing with ever-changing populations of bees, butterflies, and other pollinators, and gardening remains difficult for me.  

When it comes to vegetables, I can grow 'em large and beautiful (sometimes), but I can't teach others how to grow 'em that way. As Dr. Gilbert described it, I'm one of those so-called "experts" who unfortunately "can't tell you how they're doing what they're doing."

In my next Wednesday Wisdom, I'll talk about "REACHING LEVEL 5: THE MASTERY LEVEL."

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