Are there stages of adult learning? Yes there are. Sometimes we resist them or forget they are a part of the learning process.
As a life long learner, it never ceases to amaze me how the four stages of learning repeat themselves. In other words, I can’t skip a step, though I would love to. I am sure you would also, particularly when acquiring a skill, technique or knowledge that seems to take so long.
I refer to them as the four stages of learning. They are also known as the “four stages of competence” and the “four levels of teaching.”
What Are the Four Stages of Learning?
In sequence, they are:
1. Unconscious incompetence
2. Conscious incompetence
3. Conscious competence
4. Unconscious competence
Can you relate to any or all of the above with a recent learning experience?
What is Unconscious incompetence?
This is when we don’t understand or know how to do something and do not necessarily recognize the deficit. We may deny the usefulness of the skill or have a blind spot. Simply stated, we don’t know we are doing something wrong. We must recognize our own incompetence, and the value of the new skill, before moving on to the next stage. Sometimes it takes an external stimulus, event or person to tap into this state of unconscious incompetence. Other times we are aware of the need to make a change but choose not to for a number of reasons.
Do you remember learning to ride a bike or learning yoga or another skill? You needed someone to tell you what you were doing wasn’t correct. You may have not liked hearing the corrections or you might have appreciated them, either way, you were made aware or became conscious of your incompetence.
The time spent in this stage depends on the strength of the motivation to learn, the available educational resources and support. For instance, the desire to become more competent may come from an internal drive, competition, or external feedback, etc. To move to the next stage, we need to accept feeling uncomfortable….something not everyone relishes, though some of us thrive on it.
What is conscious incompetence?
During this stage, we call ourselves “beginners.” We are agonizingly aware of the gap between where we are with our skills versus what we would like to be able to do and/or know. This is what it means to be conscious of our incompetence. It is the most frustrating stage of learning any new skill.
For example, many of you know that I have been learning how to use cold wax medium (CWM) with oils. It is quite different from the other media I have worked with. Because of my years of painting, I thought learning this new medium would be fairly easy and would only take a couple of months. Ha! Even with concentrated hours of exploring and experimenting, it has taken me much longer than expected.
Anyone else had this experience? 🙂
Lots of time, energy, trial-and-error and paint have gone into this process. Below is an example of some of my unsuccessful attempts with CWM. They demonstrate my conscious incompetence! However, I knew with each one – and many more – I was one small step closer to understanding what I was doing.
In the world of painting, each of us circle back to this stage as we acquire more and more awareness of our artistic vision and competence. We return to this stage to improve our skills, particularly because we cannot learn all of them simultaneously.
This is the step when many learners quit because the frustration of trying so hard becomes overwhelming. And, may I add, we tend to let that voice of comparison – looking at what other people are doing/achieving – and we give up. We want so desperately to get it right! …and now! Keeping the faith and the “eye on the prize” have been key to my persistence. However, I will admit that I have tried to learn different skills, subject matter, techniques and discovered that they were not what I wanted to pursue, so I did quit. Knowing the difference between not liking something and just giving up because it is difficult can be tricky.
What is conscious competence?
During this third of the four stages of leaning we know or understand how to do something. However, demonstrating the skill or knowledge requires concentration. We must expend energy and thought in executing the new skill or knowledge.
This is the learning stage I have been hanging out in during the past month as I acquire competence with CWM. Not only have I been working on becoming proficient with this medium, I have also been trying to develop and determine my visual message with it.
It can be frustrating at times as I try one technique believing it will do what I think it will do and then it doesn’t. This photo is an example of experimenting with a couple of CWM tools after applying multiple layers of paint. Oooooo, is it ugly! LOL! However, I liked the swirling lines you can see at the bottom. As a result of this experimentation, I have been using this tool quite often.
What is unconscious competence?
In this fourth stage, we have engaged in so much practice with a skill that it has become “second nature” and can be performed easily. As a result, the skill can be performed while executing another task. For instance, we may fully understand composition and color mixing, but need to spend more time increasing our skill in executing effective values in a painting.
Also, we may be able to teach it to others when we reach this stage.
- These four stages of learning suggest that we are initially unaware of how little we know, or we are unconscious of our incompetence. As we recognize our incompetence, we consciously acquire a skill, then consciously use it. Eventually, the skill or knowledge can be executed without it being consciously thought through: the individual is said to have then acquired unconscious competence. We artists often refer to this as our intuition.
Some final thoughts:
I was introduced to these four stages of learning back when I was acquiring my masters degree in Educational Psychology. They came up again when I a corporate trainer, and now I am even more aware of how necessary it is to experience each of the four stages of learning.
I find it helpful, particularly when I am wanting to “toss in the towel,” to know I need to spend time being consciously incompetent. When my frustration is high, I step away and re-group. Sometimes all I need is a long walk or I do something completely different. Or other times, I find it helpful to do an activity that I know I can do easily. Then I return to the process.
What do you do when you tire of learning and/or become overwhelmed? Do you seek out support from others? Read or watch a video on the subject?
For a quick summary on this model of learning and more information, visit: https://medium.com/@mattangriffel/unconscious-incompetence-ad5583abf646
Please leave a comment as I love hearing your thoughts. You are invited to share this post with interested friends and colleagues.
Colorfully and gratefully yours,
PS To view several of my CMW paintings, click here.