Portretfoto Jan Bransen
Portretfoto Jan Bransen

Column Jan Bransen: Next Level

In 2017, a panel came to assess the quality assurance of the Radboud University. They recommended to not only focus on the continuation of the existing educational quality, but to put effort into what they called "the next level development" of the quality assurance. The founding of the Radboud Teaching and Learning Centre was one of the results that came from this advice.

But what does next level mean? In games of skill it is always about faster and more, but in adventure games it is often about the next assignment, which does not have to be more difficult. Development is more than a simple sequence, but it is also different from a linear and quantitative growth. Development is an iterative process that is often imagined as a circle, but which should be understood as a spiral. Every step in that circle can be considered to be a qualitative jump to a higher level. This image is helpful, but the best example I can give simultaneously shows - for those paying attention - how difficult it is to capture such a qualitative jump to a higher level in a scheme.

Onbewust onbekwaam

I am talking about this image, which you might have seen before. 

It makes sense to start at the top left and to realise that there are times where you are unconsciously incompetent. For example, you might not notice how the exams you use in your education are not reflective of what your students have learned. Now that you read this and think about it for a moment, you might undergo a developmental step. You have become consciously incompetent and lose trust in the validity of your exam questions. You have to take action. You might start reading about it, or talk about it with colleagues, ask your faculty's TIP for help, or go to a TLC meeting. You gain new insights which help you become consciously competent. This is another developmental step.

In a lot of examples this step is shown as the character of careful practice to develop new habits. For example, you were unconsciously incompetent in avoiding catchphrases and filler words. Someone brought this to your attention, and now you are becoming consciously competent because you are putting a lot of effort into not saying "That's great!" every five seconds. This new habit becomes routine as time goes on and you have gone through another developmental step. You have become a lecturer who is unconsciously competent in creating good and reliable exam questions. Lovely. You would think the process is now complete. You have gone through four developmental steps and take the right path from now on.

However, this is where things get interesting because the scheme suggests there is another developmental step, namely the one from unconsciously competent to unconsciously incompetent. But how can that be understood as a qualitative step to a higher level? How can a shift from competent to incompetent be an indication of reaching the next level?

Lineair groeimodel

This is an important question that you can try to avoid by changing the scheme. You can remove the spiral and simply create a linear growth model.

The development will stop when mastery is achieved and the habit has become a suitable automatic behaviour. This seems rather simple, but just when you are faking the mastery is when the panel visits to tell you that it is not about continuation but about the next level, about the dynamics of lifelong learning. You have to go back to the first image.

And that is exactly why the Teaching and Learning Centre exists: because development and quality assurance are not individual but rather collective accomplishments and challenges. It is your environment that takes the qualitative jump, changing your unconscious competence to an unconscious incompetence. Here lies an opportunity for you: you can unlearn something. This, too, is growth, positive development. Because you might be creating excellent exam questions, but in the meanwhile the people around you have been focusing on portfolio assessments and programme examination. As a result, your excellent exam questions have turned you into someone who is unconsciously incompetent.

Next level quality assurance is about this phenomenon, about creating a platform where we learn and unlearn with one another. That is how the TLC helps the Radboud University to develop as a sustainable learning community. It helps us to ask critical questions about our competences, because your qualitative jump forwards might be taken by someone else, by the one who discovers you are unconsciously incompetent. Get used to it.

Contact information

Jan Bransen is Academic Leader of the Radboud Teaching and Learning Centre and Professor Philosophy of Behavioural Sciences.

E: jan.bransen [at] ru.nl (jan[dot]bransen[at]ru[dot]nl)