The stages of learning
Learning a new skill is hard. It can be frustrating, overwhelming and cause many of us to want to – or actually – give up before we even begin. One thing many of us haven’t yet realised is that when we reach the point of wanting to quit, we are actually already two or three steps into the learning process.
Developed by theorist Noel Burch in the 1970s the ‘Conscious Competence Ladder’ provides learners with the natural progression we take when acquiring new knowledge.
The four stages suggest that we are initially unaware of how little we actually know. As we begin to recognise our own incompetence we consciously work to learn how to improve on what it is we don’t know. At some point, we will begin to use the skill without even realising we’re doing it. This model has been used for years to define the learning process and can be applied to any skill.
Let’s take learning to speak Spanish as an example
Learning Stage 1: Unconscious Incompetence
“I don’t know that I don’t know how to do this.”
This is the first stage and the most confusing to describe. Stage 1 is the point where you don’t know what you don’t know. It’s the state of blissful ignorance before you figure out that something is missing. You are aware the Spanish language exists but have never thought you would need to speak it.
At this stage, it is difficult to identify where your gaps in knowledge are or how to fix them. It’s hard to learn a new skill when you aren’t yet at the point of knowing what that skill actually is.
Learning Stage 2: Conscious Incompetence
“I know that I don’t know how to do this, yet.”
In the second stage, you will find that you have become aware of your problems and that something is missing. For example, you know you are interested in a job that requires a second language. The difficulty now is discovering how to correct them. You may understand what it is you need to work on but the idea of all there is to learn can be somewhat overwhelming. You know you’d like to learn Spanish but it’s difficult to know where to start. This is the point where you are able to make judgments about yourself and the learning can begin. It is also the stage where most of us give up. Keep pushing through because the next stage is crucial to your success.
Learning Stage 3: Conscious Competence
“I know that I know how to do this.”
This is a foreign and quite scary phase but a lot of fun. Stage 3 provides you with the opportunity to grow and delve into something meaningful: the exciting unknown of learning a new skill. This is the point where you must step out of your comfort zone and begin to apply what you are learning. At this point, you will have discovered the school, tutor or software with which to learn the new language and are actively practicing it. It will take a lot of concentration and focus to apply yourself and do so but, likely at this point, you will have realised that there is no other way to improve.
Learning Stage 4: Unconscious Competence
“I can do this! or “¡Puedo hacerlo!”
Congratulations! You have learned your new skill and you are applying it to your life. You now know what you know and you no longer have to think about it. Perhaps at this point, you are writing and conversing and maybe even dreaming (a sign of true Unconcious Competence) in Spanish and are ready to apply for your new job. You have become so skilled at it that it’s automatic and comes naturally. In fact, you do it unconsciously because you no longer have to think about it.