Competent Or Overconfident? Unboxing The Dunning Kruger Effect
On April 19, 1995, McArthur Wheeler, robbed a bank with his face glazed with lemon juice, believing the juice would make his face invisible to the surveillance cameras. He thought so because lemon juice works as invisible ink on a piece of paper.
Police broadcasted the security camera footage on the local eleven o’clock news and just after midnight, Arthur was arrested. Incredibly, he said “But I wore the juice…!?.
It is surprising how self confident and sure the truly incompetent are. Baffled by this reasoning, David Dunning and Justin Kruger, two Psychologists, studied Mr. Wheeler and others like him . They came to the conclusion that people with low ability at a task tend to, paradoxically, overestimate themselves. This cognitive bias is known as The Dunning–Kruger effect.
“Setting out on a journey of learning can be a daunting experience. What starts off as a leisurely stroll soon changes to an intense battle of willpower between you and an intimidating amount of knowledge”
People tend to hold overly favourable views of their abilities in many social and intellectual domains. The authors suggest that this overestimation occurs, in part, because people who are unskilled in these domains suffer a dual burden: Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it.
When working in the learning and education field, coming across this type of a person is very common. Our best guess as an educational consultancy is that this is the case because just about everyone considers themselves a learning and/or educational expert to a certain extent. After all, we’re all learners, we’ve all experienced learning and education (for anywhere from 12 to 20 years), we’ve all had positive and negative feelings while learning and have experienced positive and negative situations when we were in school or otherwise, and so forth. Whatever the reason may be: It’s common that people are passionate about learning, emotional as well, even if they don’t know anything about it.
Strong statements like “education is broken!”, followed by an emotional plea that contains no facts whatsoever or a solution to that ‘problem’ without any scientific basis are quite common nowadays. Let’s look at a comment on learning strategies. When the learning expert, based on a plethora of empirical research, explains that “rereading and highlighting have proven to be largely ineffective learning strategies”, someone in the audience will go out of their way to explain how the expert is wrong, explaining how his/her son/daughter always rereads a chapter and how that helps him/her immensely. And the niece of their neighbour who highlights her notes using all the colours of the rainbow passed her exam so “how can you say highlighting doesn’t work?” And then you have to explain that the highlighting doesn’t necessarily cause the successful passing of the exam and we need to take learning styles or the learning pyramid or multitasking factors into account.
In other words, if a layman, a good student and a wise teacher were to have a public debate on this topic, this is how things could go down. The layman knows just a little bit, but is very confident and voices his opinions loud and without hesitations. The student knows more, but doesn’t realize it because she lacks confidence. She keeps quiet. The teacher is confident, but understands how complex things really are. Hence voices his opinions with reservations. In the end, the layman wins the popular vote, because he is so confident about being right and people tend to trust certainty.
“The simpletons overestimate their ability, while the true experts know that there is a limit to expertises”
Since the rise of the pandemic pedagogy, two cases of this overconfidence effect have surfaced. Firstly, many parents have begun to consider themselves experts in the school because “they have attended it for years”. Despite the fact that the education of a child is indeed a shared task, we must respect each other’s roles. Parents are not educational professionals, they do not have the same background or experience of teachers and school management. They are certainly the best placed to know the needs of their child, but these needs, contextualized in a social and institutional framework, must be met by professionals in accordance with the study programs and ministerial expectations.
Parents can have their opinion on the education of their child, on the pedagogical approaches and the didactic tools favored by the teacher, but they must recognize that their posture as parent involves a certain degree of subjectivity. In this regard, the last year of home/digital schooling has certainly contributed to a certain awareness: to be an educator is not just to be a teacher!
Secondly, professional educators among each other consider themselves able to do the work of others. It is not because they have similar training that they can necessarily do the other’s work. In education, judgments about what a particular teacher, academic coordinator, or director should have done at a specific time are frequent. Some people feel able to do the other’s work, even when they don’t have the contextual elements and nuances necessary for a good understanding of a problem. This phenomenon can probably be explained by the overestimation of one’s own professional capacities. So how can we be sure that we have the correct information on our level of competence?
● Professional development training and continuing education are essential.
● Ask for feedback from those around and listen to their responses.
● Give importance to comments from experts, even if they come from people who do not know your reality or who do not assume your
responsibilities on a daily basis. Their external gaze can precisely enlighten you and guide you.
● At school, do not neglect to consult the students who can also help you to develop professionally.
The Dunning-Kruger Effect reminds us to keep the balance between modesty and blind confidence in our means. By ensuring that we maintain a high level of competence through a process of professional development and continuous training, we will discover that we know very little about the profession we practice. The heterogeneity of the students under our responsibility requires frequent upgrading of our knowledge and skills.
As we learn something new, we are often highly confident because we know so little that as soon as we do know a tiny bit, we think we know it all. Those who stop learning here maintain a false sense of mastery. Those who continue learning, realize things are more complex and often lose motivation . And the more they increase their knowledge the lower their confidence becomes. Many stop at this stage, thinking they’ve learned nothing. Only if we keep going can we regain confidence while getting better. And at the end, we will be full of knowledge and almost as confident in our ability as right after we started.
Setting out on a journey of learning can be a daunting experience. What starts off as a leisurely stroll soon changes to an intense battle of willpower between you and an intimidating amount of knowledge. Do not give up. The longer you fight, the more power you gain, up until the point you win.
And in the end, if you persevere, you may be elevated to the ranks beside Socrates, who, over 2000 years ago, left us with a quote of wisdom:
“I know that I am intelligent, because I know that I know nothing.”