The 4 Stages of Learning

The idea is that learners are not aware of how little or much they know. They go through the four stages listed below, depending on how much they know about a given topic or skill. In the end, the learner will be able to use the knowledge or skill without having to think about what they are. It is important to keep these stages in mind when developing new skills because we all have to go through these stages and be patient with ourselves or others as everyone moves through the 4 stages at their own pace.

1) Unconscious Incompetence

We don’t know that we don’t know

In this stage, we don’t have a skill or knowledge yet and we may not even be aware that it exists, never mind considering it useful or necessary to learn. “Ignorance is bliss.”

2) Conscious Incompetence

We know that we don’t know.

At this stage we are aware of what we don’t know and understand that it is useful to learn a skill. Ignorance is no longer bliss. We are aware of what we don’t know and want to learn.

Emotions like frustration, impatience or overwhelm can occur at this stage. Instead, I prefer to choose to feel excitement and optimism about all the knowledge I am about to gain!

3) Conscious Competence

We work at what we don’t know

We are making an effort to learn a new skill and practice it but we haven’t mastered it yet. We still have to think about what we’re doing while we are doing it, so it takes effort to do it.

4) Unconscious Competence

We don’t have to think about it

In the fourth stage of learning we know it so well that we don’t have to think about it as we do it. It becomes like breathing, we just do it automatically. We are able to multi-task, doing a lesser skill at the same time as the one we are now able to do on auto-pilot.

For example: Think about when you first learned how to drive: at first you didn’t know what you didn’t know = Unconscious Competence and all was good; ignorance is bliss! Then you started to learn how to drive and you become aware of all the things you don’t know = Conscious Incompetence. Next you become more competent = Conscious Competence, but you still have to think about which foot to use on which pedal, using the gear shift, signal lights, etc. and it requires all your focus to stay on the road. At the end we move into Unconscious Competence, aka auto-pilot, where we can listen to the radio or have a conversation while driving and it’s effortless.

The key is to recognize where you are at in the 4 stages of learning and be patient with yourself or others.

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