I was struggling significantly with the unfathomable behaviour of Peter’s head teacher until a friend reminded me about a thing called unconscious incompetence – and then it all fell into place.
With unconscious incompetence you don’t know what you don’t know. This described many of Peter’s teachers, his SENCo and head teacher nicely. I particularly love this description of it:
“You are blissfully ignorant: you have a complete lack of knowledge and skills in a specific area, and you’re unaware of this. Your confidence therefore far exceeds your abilities.” (reference here)
Oh how I longed to tell them that their confidence in the subject of Special Educational Needs far exceeded their ability…..
Whilst this may feel rather (ok, very,) uncharitable of me, bear with me and I will explain.
Peter had a very experienced NHS child psychologist from the age of 5. She carried out home, school and clinic based assessments, as well as cognitive assessments. By the time Peter was 6 she was able to give his school a lot of information to identify areas that he may need support with. She was willing to support school staff in what ever way was necessary to ensure that his anxiety was managed and his social communication needs supported. “What is your problem?” I hear you ask.
Peter’s biggest ‘barriers to learning’, it turned out, were his teachers. They were completely unaware of their lack of knowledge in the fields of anxiety and neurodevelopmental disabilities (autism, dyslexia and sensory processing in our case). They were convinced he was N.O.R.M.A.L. This lack of awareness was THEIR ‘barrier to learning’ too. They threw away a golden opportunity to enhance their knowledge and skills in autism and to be able to support Peter’s ‘hidden’ disabilities.
We all have areas where we are unconsciously incompetent. With some humility, an open mind, a willingness to learn and so on, we carry on learning. As a ‘professional’ this type of development is essential to good practice, in my view.
This diagram is my take on the ‘conscious competence ladder’.
I was incredibly naïve when Peter was 5 (and 6…7…8…). Thinking about it, the penny didn’t really drop for years. I was confused, frustrated and worried about Peter. I was used to working in a multi-agency team where we all valued and enjoyed the benefits of different specialists working together and learning from each other. I just assumed primary school teachers would have a similar ethos. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
By the time Peter was 9, he was admitted to an inpatient psychiatric unit with school related trauma (detailed here). The teachers’ determination to ignore medical advice was seemingly a mistake. Yet still school staff remained resolutely entrenched in their world of unconscious incompetence.
He had been diagnosed by a multi-professional team at age 7. Now at 9 and very ill, he was re-assessed by 2 of the most senior child psychiatric (Tier 4) teams in the country, in addition to our own local Tier 3 team. All those assessing him were clear and consistent – he has autism, sensory difficulties and so on. 6 weeks after his admission to hospital his record explains ‘school think Peter is fine’.
Just pause and take this in. STILL school staff remained unconsciously incompetent. ***Insert swear words of your own choosing here***.
- The person is not aware of the existence or relevance of the skill area.
- The person is not aware that they have a particular deficiency in the area concerned.
- The person might deny the relevance or usefulness of the new skill.
- The person must become conscious of their incompetence before development of the new skill or learning can begin.
I wonder now if this could help others to at least be less bemused and distressed when someone who apparently has a degree and a senior job has no clue what-so-ever that they are talking utter nonsense.
Of course nonsense coming from someone in a position of power and authority is a dangerous thing so shouldn’t be talked about flippantly. Nonsense from teachers and social workers, has the power to wreck family lives and there are examples in SEN forums all over the country that demonstrate this.
I notice that some authors have suggested a 5th stage to this model – whereby a person develops skills to help “to recognise and develop unconscious incompetence in others”. There is a link here if you have the headspace for it! the (the reference is here)
Posted by Peter and Lily’s Mum