The Four Stages of Learning, or the Conscious Competence Model, is a psychological theory developed in the 1970s. The concept is that we each go through a series of four stages when learning a new skill.
The good news—and why I think this is relevant and of interest—is that if you’re aware and understand the four stages of learning, it’s much easier to take control of them! If you know where you are on your path to mastery you can hopefully save yourself some frustration and make your learning more enjoyable and, with any luck, easier.
Think of some examples from your own life as you go through the list.
Stage 1: Unconscious Incompetence
Typically learners display excitement, enthusiasm and even over-confidence because they don’t know that they don’t know. An example would be a guitarist who has learnt a few simple chords and suddenly thinks he’s God’s gift to the guitar. He might, for instance, know nothing about feel or rhythm, but at this first stage of learning he doesn’t know that he doesn’t know! A kid might wander into a magic shop, buy a bunch of tricks, and then rush off to get a business card printed saying ‘Experienced magician available for all occasions’. We’ve all seen the god-awful auditions on American Idol and their shock-horror at being told that they don’t have good voices.
In my younger years I was involved with martial arts, and it was always the newbies that would be out in the carpark after the lesson trying to do flips and show off with flying kicks, despite only coming to one or two classes. The expression “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing” describes the Unconscious Incompetence stage perfectly.
Stage 2: Conscious Incompetence
In the second stage the learner knows that they don’t know. They recognize that they are out of their comfort zone and that the skill may be more difficult than they originally anticipated. In other words, they start to see themselves as the rest of the world sees them. It’s in this stage that the learner may become frustrated or want to give up. For teachers, it’s important to build confidence with continued mentoring and coaching in this stage.
Making mistakes are integral to the learning process in the Conscious Incompetence stage. No learning of a skill can happen without passing through this initial frustration, because if you’re not clear on exactly what it is that you want to achieve, you won’t be able to work towards it.
Stage 3: Conscious Competence
The learner knows that they know. An example would be a young child tying their laces who has to carefully concentrate so that they don’t make a mistake. In time through experience the task becomes less challenging. Another example would be playing a piece of music and having to concentrate on what chord changes are coming up, or acting in a play thinking ahead to remember the next line. Because the task is serviceable at this level, many people chose to stop learning at the Conscious Competence stage.
Stage 4: Unconscious Competence
In this stage of learning, learners don’t know that they know. The task becomes so automatic that they don’t even accept that they’re doing anything special or something that once challenged them. Everyday examples would be riding a bike or driving a car, things that are done automatically without thinking, let alone appreciating that they once were challenging.
The masters of their craft have reached the level of Unconscious Competence—picture B.B. King playing a blues solo, or Robin Williams being able to go off on an unrehearsed tangent and make people laugh. Ironically it’s at this stage that onlookers often think “oh, they’re just a natural” or “they were born with it”. No, they put in tens of thousands of hours to achieve Unconscious Competence!
It’s in this final stage where the learner may experience the most growth, because they feel creative, intuitive, and are able to think outside of the box. However, it is also at this stage where major mistakes can occur because there is a greater tendency to take risks, shortcuts, and get lazy. If you’re stuck in a creative rut, you’re probably in stage four. There’s also a tendency to undervalue one’s own efforts in this stage because it’s easy to forget about all of the hard work it took to get there! This is why it’s critical to occasionally take stock of your own skills and talents. See what other people see in you and accept your own skills as they really are.
We are constantly moving throughout the four stages of learning at any given time in our lives. We may be in stage four of one aspect of our career, but stage one at another. Realistically recognising the stages that we are in can help us make informed choices.
The Conscious Competence Model helps us in several ways – it gives us reassurance in the early stages, and helps us avoid complacency in the final ones. It’s also an invaluable teaching tool as it allows us to see where others are on their own journey through learning.
Good luck on your path.
Originally Appeared in the March 2013 edition of Inside Entertainment, the monthly membership magazine of the Variety Artists Club of New Zealand Inc.