Metacognition: Why should we think about thinking?

Metacognition means thinking about thinking, and is a salient feature of adult-level intelligence, according to Piaget’s theory of cognitive development in children. But, in this age of practicality, one is encouraged to ask: Why think about thinking? What is the benefit of knowing how the mind works?

Here is one proposal: we should think about thinking in order to reach intellectual enlightenment. To define intellectual enlightenment, we first have to discuss a modified version of a model in psychology called the four stages of competence.

The original model of the four stages of competence divides the process of acquiring a skill into four stages: unconscious incompetence, conscious incompetence, conscious competence, and unconscious competence.


When you are at stage one, you don’t even know that you are bad at the skill. Then, with some knowledge and experience, you progress to stage two, where you realize how and why you are bad at it. If you continue practicing the skill, you may reach stage three, where you are finally better at the skill, but still very conscious of what you need to do. Then, as you continue refining your skill, you get to stage four, where you are so good at what you are doing, that you just do everything reflexively, without thinking about what you have to do.

But some psychologists add a fifth stage to the four stages of competence: enlightened competence, or conscious competence of unconscious competence, at which stage the individual not only performs the skill competently and reflexively, but also understands fully the how and why of his own skill.

This, to me, seems to be a very sensible addition to the original four stages. The experts with unconscious competence could perhaps perform their skills flawlessly, but they might not be able to explain all that they do to people. On the other hand, the Masters, or experts who also know how to teach their skills to people, could be considered to be one step beyond having unconscious competence in their skills.

Now, if we could classify “thinking” as a skill, which is in my opinion not unreasonable, then the fifth stage would seem reachable only through metacognition. That is, to transcend the traditional skill boundary of unconscious competence in thinking—to reach “intellectual enlightenment”, so to speak—one has to begin to understand one’s thinking skills in a conscious manner, and what is to understand consciously, but to think?

If these three assumptions are true—namely, that there exists a fifth level of competence, that thinking could be considered a skill, and that thinking about thinking is required to reach the fifth level of competence in thinking, then we can conclude thus: You probably already think about thinking quite a lot, anyway, if you are an adult with normal intelligence. But here is one reason to do it more: perhaps you will reach intellectual enlightenment.

Personally, as an of yet consciously incompetent thinker, I cannot begin to imagine what it means to have enlightened competency in thinking. And judging from the number of assumptions this idea is based on, “intellectual enlightenment” can be considered a very vague idea. Nonetheless, at least now I—and those who ever feel slightly insecure about the usefulness of the pursuit of liberal arts in any form, in this utilitarian society—will have another direction in the search for a defendable reason to continue pondering on how the mind works in a not strictly “useful” way.


About sy2m

a student forever ... never stop seeking knowledge :)
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