Two kinds of competency

There are things we know how to do without thinking or concepts. We discover our "competence without concepts" when asked how to do what we do and have no words to describe it. This occurs most often with motor skills, but it can include complex mental tasks done routinely. Early research into artificial intelligence called these routines "heuristics". This kind of competency has been cultivated with lots of feedback to hone in on what yields the intended outcomes. Once verified as viable, no further processing or conceptualizing is required. Most computer games now have AI opponents that "stay in the game" by relying on heuristics.

There is another kind of competence that relies on linguistic structures to get results. Conceptual competence includes diagnosing underlying dynamics from misleading symptoms, strategyzing an indirect approach to a subtle threat, designing a solution for conflicting problems or resolving a stalemate among opposing stances . Much needs to be conceptualized prior to taking action. Concepts come into play to "make sense" of the symptoms, threats, constituencies or positional stances. Concepts are valuable to avoid jumping to conclusion, assuming familiarity or obsessing on a small facet of the total picture. Insufficient concepts result in a misdiagnosis, flawed strategies, dysfunctional designs or escalated conflicts.

Within this framework I'm proposing, there are also two kinds of incompetence. One kind arises from a lack of concepts or linguistic structures. The competent clerk who cannot troubleshoot a breakdown in the printer used everyday lacks sufficient resources to conceptualize the problem. There is no way to think through the unexpected, foresee the eventual consequences or formulate experimental trials.

The other kind of incompetence maintains an abundance of concepts without the ability to perform. This includes people described as "a walking encyclopedia", "book smarts without street smarts", "stuck in the idea stage" and "those that cannot do, teach". Alfred North Whitehead referred to these linguistic structures as "inert ideas". Instead of provoking action or producing results, conceptualizing plays into over-analyzing and polarizing differences.

On my other blog, I've explored how so much time and money is wasted by students in college. I've wondered whether the faculty are ignorant or incompetent -- to offer so many useless classes and bogus exercises that fail to develop competencies. It makes more sense to me that the faculty becoming more effective -- threatens their power and control. But having reflected on Stephen's wonderful insights recently, I've come to a new conclusion. The faculty's competency is based entirely on linguistic structures and it thus functions as incompetent in the realms of action. They lack the heuristics or concepts prerequisite for creating value, serving students or error trapping their own flawed instructional strategies.

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