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Saturday, December 08, 2012

Riding, Conscious Incompetence, and the "Review Session"

IMG_0214In the summer of 2009, just after I turned fifty-five, I decided to learn how to ride a horse.  I had perhaps been on a pony ride at some time in my childhood; other than that my posterior had never been intimate with a saddle.

I've now been riding intensely for the better part of four years I've used riding here and here to talk about the experience of learning and teaching.  (That's Chandler at left, one of my former teachers, greeting me as I show up for a lesson.)  But I just switched barns, started on a new horse with a new instructor teaching from the standpoint of a different discipline.  Because of that, I'm in the midst of experiencing my own move from what is known under one learning theory as "unconscious incompetence" through "conscious incompetence" and then to "conscious competence."  The goal is "unconscious competence."

It seems to me that we, as experienced lawyer and law teachers, rarely have the particular epiphany of realizing we have been unconsciously incompetent.  I heartily recommend learning something new and particularly difficult if for no other reason than reminding oneself what students go through in our classes.

I have switched from a "hunter-jumper" barn to a "dressage" barn here in Massachusetts.  For those of you whose only knowledge comes from Ann Romney's horse, Rafalca, and Stephen Colbert's hilarious turns learning dressage, there are a number of different ways to participate in English equestrian in addition to merely getting on board and trying not to fall off.  Dressage doesn't involve jumping; it is an event that involves having the horse undertake a prescribed set of moves at different levels of difficulty (this is what Colbert was making fun of - piaffe, passage, pirouette, etc.).  

Even though hunter-jumper trainers will tell you that the fundamentals of riding a horse - balance, feel, impulsion - are  fundamentals regardless of the discipline, the essence of dressage is getting those fundamentals perfect as opposed to using the fundamentals for other purposes, for example, to get over fences.  I have had instructors who focus on both of them, but decided that I want to concentrate on dressage.

What you shouldn't be doing to get a horse to turn right, for example, is throwing your upper body in the direction of the turn.  If you (read: me) are doing this, you are unconsciously incompetent.  You don't even realize you are doing it, and the ironic result is that the throwing of weight to the right causes the horse to feel pressure from your leg on the right rather than the left, and causes the horse to turn left rather than right, which is where you wanted to go.

The first step in the process was my new trainer, Danielle McNamara (Dry Water Farm, Stoughton, MA), getting me to the point that I was conscious of my incompetence.  (I have several other great trainers, including Nadine DeYoung for dressage in Ellsworth, MI and Meg Howes for hunter-jumper in Concord, MA but they've had to work on other areas of my unconscious and conscious incompetence just to get me where I am now.)  In other words, I had to get to the point where I could tell even that I was twisting in the direction of the turn.  That was its own epiphany.

Then I had consciously to adopt the position that was correct and, sure enough, it worked.  But I'm not unconsciously competent.  If I don't think about what I'm doing, I will go back to throwing my weight in the direction of the turn, and we go absolutely the wrong way ("ride every stride").

There's no question, as far as I'm concerned, that the four stages of competence apply to the learning (or the unlearning and relearning) of a physical task like riding a horse, driving car, playing a musical instrument, or using a keyboard.  Is there an unconscious incompetence about which we need to make our law students aware?  Indeed, aren't tools like IRAC a way to help students develop consciously the competence that we as experienced lawyers undertake  unconsciously ?  That is, the actual thinking about the issues isn't unconscious, but how we spot the issues and work our way through them is.  "Ride every stride" turns into "consider the implication of every fact."

Which brings to the subject of the dreaded "review session" (I refuse to call it that because it implies I am going to review something - I call it the "confusion alleviation" or "stump the professor" session).  I think about the amount of patience Danielle and other trainers have with me, as opposed to the amount of patience I may or may not demonstrate in these sessions.  

I've recently taken, when listening to a student question, to thinking about sitting on top of the horse, wanting to turn right, and, despite my willing it in that direction, having it horse go left anyway.  At least it reminds me of the inner experience of moving toward conscious incompetence.

Posted by Jeff Lipshaw on December 8, 2012 at 07:54 AM | Permalink


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I, too, have had frequent occasion over the last several years to use horse riding instruction as a prompt to reflect on my own teaching, especially in the last year as my daughters have moved on from their first instructor to a new one, with, for the oldest, increasing dollops of clinics and specialized instruction mixed in. (Another name for all of this is “lighting money on fire.”) One thing I’ve taken from my time watching – apart from amazement at the level of nuance and complexity involved – is that there’s a great deal of benefit to exposing oneself to a variety of approaches. Different people will explain things in different ways, and there’s value in that (and that value is, I think, independent of a whole bunch of other variables like learning style and the overall quality of the instructor and so on). Another is the value, in an instructor, of patience, of explaining why things are done the way they’re done, and of doing it multiple times because there’s only so much we can attend to when learning new things and so some things will slip by as we’re focusing on others. (Which is very much akin to the point you’re getting at.)

Yet another is the value of doing. I’ve watched hundreds of hours of riding instruction over the past six and a half years. I’ve even dipped into a few books. Nearly all that instruction has been hunter/jumper-related. I’ve only ever ridden in a Western saddle (and I haven’t done a whole lot of that). I could get on a horse in an English saddle and have a pretty good understanding of much of what I’m supposed to do. Yet when that day comes, I suspect that my understanding will not lead quickly to being able to do it well. The lesson for me is that I need to be mindful as an instructor that my students are engaged in more “doing.” That can of course mean all sorts of things. The important part is that I do what I can to ensure that a significant part of their experience be more like being on the horse than sitting on a chair outside the ring.

Posted by: Chad Oldfather | Dec 8, 2012 7:38:23 PM

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