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Learning to Learn: Introducing the Four Stages of Learning

Few skills have the power to hold such sway over the course of our lives as learning, but for such a vital skill, the steps we go through on the learning journey are not always greatly understood. 

Learning is an everyday occurance, it’s something we start on the day of our birth and we’re expected to continue for the rest of our lives. If it’s something we’ll be doing forever, then why are there no classes in schools on the subject? A semester dedicated to Learning 101?

The ways in which to learn are many and often unique to the individual. Rather than analyse different learning approaches in depth, I hope to show you that there are recognised stages of learning that people generally experience regardless of their own learning style. Knowing which stage you’re currently in can help you stay calm, keep you motivated and allow you to persist when learning gets tough.

The knowledge skyscraper

Is it just me or is the pressure to learn increasing over time? If you think about it, our knowledge as humans only increases as our society continually advances. There’s an expectation to learn more, learn faster and learn better. Think about being a software engineer, new technologies are released every week, we are expected to keep up and keep learning to stay relevant. This is the pressure I’m talking about!

Humans are the only creatures on the planet to be able to pass on knowledge, thoughts and feelings from one moment in time to another. The extraordinary benefit of this is that we have amassed a huge library of these thoughts, an ever increasing skyscraper of knowledge on which to base our assumptions, predictions and theories on. 

One drawback of this is that we actually have to learn from this library, to actually climb that skyscraper of knowledge! We don’t just have to learn what is in front of us, we’re expected to be aware of what has come before us too.  

That sounds like a lot of work.

Learning, it seems, just got a whole lot harder, but remember the times when learning was easy?

Passive versus active learning

Some learning comes without effort. Whether it’s a new song you’ve learnt the lyrics to without even trying, or your favourite football teams scores over the last decade or two. This learning is almost unconscious. It’s fun, and without pressure to retain, we seemly retain it more easily. This learning is known as passive learning.

Unfortunately, not all learning is passive. Some learning is required for work or for progressing in life. This adds a certain pressure to learning. Whether it’s learning to drive, or learn a new technology as a software engineer, the added pressure of needing to succeed doesn’t help. We call this type of learning active learning.

So with all this pressure to actively learn from the ever growing skyscraper of knowledge, what are we to do? In part, we need to be aware that the journey of learning has recognisable stages. Four stages to be aware of as you learn, to keep you focussed, and help you adapt your learning as you progress up the ladder.

Four stages to be aware of as you learn

Stage one: Unconscious incompetence

Firstly, please don’t be offended by the word incompetence, it is meant here without negativity but simply in the truest sense of being unable to do something. This stage occurs when a person is attempting to learn something brand new, perhaps even without any context on the subject at hand. A person is unable to do something and most likely doesn’t even realise that a challenge exists for which they have inadequate knowledge for. 

To move beyond this stage, a person must recognise there is a gap in their knowledge and it’s essential to have the nature of the challenge explained to them in a context that they can understand so they can see why this challenge exists. 

In the example of learning to drive a car, it is the stage before the first driving lesson. A person has no idea how little they know and how much they have to learn. They may ask what seems like basic questions, such as why can’t they start the car in the highest gear. Trainers often find resistance to learning from people at this stage who do not know that they do not know.

Stage two: Conscious incompetence

Here, a person understands that there is a challenge and although they still don’t know how to remedy it, they know there is a benefit in learning the skills to address and solve this challenge. 

When they understand that there is a challenge that they are expected to solve, but also understand that they are ill-equipped to do so, the natural response is to panic. Actually this is a good sign and shows that they’ve moved on from stage one.

In the driving example, it is the stage when people realise that understanding the controls on a car and negotiating street conditions is much harder than they thought. 

Trying to reach that perfect biting point between clutch and accelerator without the engine cutting out. A seeming failure before they’ve even gotten the car out of the driveway. PANIC! They fail to do well more often than they succeed. PANIC! This stage is often accompanied by a feeling of hopelessness or “Am I ever going to learn this?” Did I mention PANIC?

Stage three: conscious competence

Hoorah! Progress. Here a person can understand a challenge and also how to remedy it. Although such actions are not yet innate to the person and they must devote much of their concentration in applying their new skills.

With time and regular practice, the learner moves out of a place of getting things mostly wrong into a place of getting things mostly right. However, this competence comes with much effort. 

In the example of driving a car, it’s when the learner consciously practices the “rules of the road” that they have been taught. Reversing so that they can parallel park on a steep hill while there’s a car waiting for them to move and they’re being watched by that driver and the instructor… panic to some degree may still exist, they know they can do it but it takes all their focus.

Stage Four: Unconscious competence

At last, the person has had so much practice with these skills that they become innate to them, second nature or unconscious. They no longer go through the steps of performing those skills, they just do it. In-fact, they can often perform those skills while performing other tasks as-well.

They’re driving in heavy traffic but checking the radio for their favourite station and drinking their Starbucks. Maybe they’re talking on their hands free device too. (I’m hoping I’m not in this car with them!)

When people reach this stage, the skill has stuck. Even if it is not performed for long periods, people can go back to it without too much difficulty and perform again as well as if they had never been away, driving a car, riding a bike, you just know you can do it.

So now you know that learning has scientifically recognised stages, a learning ladder with rungs that we all must climb on our journey to mastering a skill set. Whether you want to pursue a career in software, learn a new language or just like to understand things, understand that being able to recognise where you are in your journey of learning means you won’t get lost or disheartened on your climb of that ever increasing skyscraper of human knowledge. 

Like most things in life, learning is a journey, not an end point, so even though you may never reach the top of that skyscraper, you’re sure to enjoy the views as you climb.

Go forth and learn!

About the Author
Tony Griffin
Academy Engineer at Made Tech
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