Rethinking Training Fights Unconscious Incompetence

Nick Howe speaks at the 2018 OSHA Oil and Gas Safety and Health Conference held in Houston.

What you think you know could hurt you. One of the major hurdles in safety training is overcoming what Nick Howe calls unconscious incompetence.


Howe, the chief learning officer at Area9 Lyceum, a company focused on adaptive-learning technology, spoke at the recent Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) Health and Safety in Oil and Gas Conference in Houston. There, he asked an audience how many senses a person has. The overwhelming, and overwhelmingly confident, answer was five. As Howe pointed out, however, people have many more than five senses; in addition to hearing, sight, smell, taste, and touch, hunger and balance are senses, too, along with many more. The audience members’ confidence in their wrong answer perfectly presented Howe’s point.

“The research is clear,” Howe said. “That trivial example applies to everything, everything that we are trying to teach people, everything that folks are trying to learn. We hold deep misconceptions about what is, in fact, true and what we can and cannot do.”

The research to which Howe refers comes from J. Kruger and D. Dunning (Kruger and Dunning 1999). In their paper “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments,” they conclude that people tend to hold overly favorable views of their abilities, suggesting that this overestimation occurs, in part, because people who are unskilled suffer a dual burden: Not only do they reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it.

“When we try and teach people,” Howe said, “when we are doing any kind of training, particularly things that are critical like safety education, we tend to think of people as empty vessels. We just need to pour knowledge or skill into them, and they need to learn it. But, in fact, the situation is much more complex than that.”

On top of the Kruger-Dunning effect, people often suffer from the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve (Ebbinghaus 1913). In 1885, Hermann Ebbinghaus researched how quickly people forget what they have been taught and came up with some disturbing conclusions: Most people will forget most of what they are taught, and remarkably quickly. “If they do not get a chance to practice it, or if it is not reinforced, they will forget 70% of everything you teach them within 24 hours,” Howe pointed out, adding, “They will forget 90% of what you teach them within 2 weeks.

“The question,” Howe said, “is ‘can we do anything about it?’ And the answer is yes, we can—fortunately.”

The key, Howe said, is personalization. “We have personalization everywhere. We have personalization with Amazon, we have personalization with Uber. There’s all these technologies out there that allow us to create personal experiences, yet we still have this habit of putting people in classrooms together and feeding them exactly the same content in exactly the same experience and hope that they all get something out of it,” he said.

With individual tutors, however, difficult concepts can be covered repeatedly while subjects the student already knows can be skipped. This leads to dramatically faster training. “If we can avoid teaching people things they already know,” Howe said, “then, typically, we can teach to the same outcomes twice as fast.”

The sticking point, however, is cost-effective scaling. “You can’t afford to get everybody a personal tutor,” he said. “The secret to that is to use technology. What technology allows us to do is create that experience for everybody in a company at the same time and personalize it to them.”

Adaptive Learning
Leveraging technology to facilitate adaptive learning is pretty straightforward, Howe said. “It’s very similar to building a normal training course; it uses the same content.” The difference is that it will be delivered online with software serving the role of the tutor. Algorithms process a student’s answers to determine which questions to ask next.

The algorithms allow the software to be more nuanced that simply using “if/then” processes. The software is also going to consider a student’s confidence in the answer. “It’s also going to look at how long did I take to do that,” Howe said. “The system has algorithms that figure out if you’re just trying to guess the answer or not. So you and I could answer the same problem is exactly the same way with the same level of confidence, but the system is going to do something different.”

The goal of all of this, of course, is to guide the students toward mastery.

Path to Mastery
Howe presented four stages of learning, starting with unconscious incompetence:

  • Unconscious incompetence: Students believe they know something, yet they are wrong.
  • Conscious incompetence: Students know that they do not know something.
  • Unconscious competence: Students are not sure that they know something, yet they do.
  • Conscious competence: Students know what they know. They know they can do something, and they are right.

“What we can do with adaptive learning is optimize the path to mastery,” Howe said. “The people aren’t empty vessels.”

Personalized, technology-based, adaptive-learning training techniques can bring people out of unconscious incompetence through to conscious competence and beyond to automaticity. Automaticity is the ability to perform a task automatically, without having to think about the details required. “Because the other thing that’s important,” Howe said, “particularly in the safety regime, is that, under stress, people revert to stored behaviors, the key things that are going to make life-and-death differences”

Kruger, J., and Dunning, D. 1999. Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77 (6), 1121–1134.

Ebbinghaus, Hermann. 1913. Memory; A Contribution to Experimental Psychology. New York City: Teachers College, Columbia University.



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