Four Stages of Learning

Noel Burch identified the four stages of learning in the 1970s. Knowing these stages can really help you make accurate assessments of your own level of skill. They can also help you see areas that need improvement. Before I get into that, let’s look at the stages of learning.

Unconscious Incompetence  – this is the “ignorance is bliss” stage. You don’t know what you don’t know. This can make you feel that there is nothing new to know or perhaps dismiss the value of learning something.

Conscious Incompetence – this is the stage where the person understands that skill is lacking. He knows that learning it is useful. He just doesn’t have the ability to execute it very well.

Conscious Competence – at this stage, the person is able to execute the skill with thought and concentration.

Unconscious Competence – this is the stage where the person can execute the skill without thinking about it. It just happens automatically and proficiently.

If you overestimate your skill level, you may close yourself off from learning and stop growing. If you dismiss ideas or say that “X” is not the problem, you could be overestimating your skill. Perhaps you are at a lower stage of learning than you realize. An objective assessment could be in order.

Here are some examples to illustrate what I mean:

  • “Joe” doesn’t know why he can’t seem to sustain a romantic relationship. He has a hard time getting a date. When he does meet someone, it rarely goes past the third date.
  • “Jane’s” friends have told her that she has an attitude problem. They have suggested that she take a softer approach when talking to people. Jane insists that it is other people’s issue, not hers.
  • “Karla’s” instructor frequently gives the class the same instruction. Karla feels that she’s talking to other people, not her.

If you are hearing the same advice over and over – especially if it is coming from people you trust – there is probably some wisdom to it. When you are getting unsatisfactory results using the skills that you have, you could have a skill deficit. If you don’t know what to do, you’re probably at the first stage of learning.

All this is good news because skills can always improve. When you develop one skill, it often allows you to get to a higher level of application for another skills. After a while, it becomes fun. Learning skills can expand your competence in a global way.

Everything is either a matter of knowledge or skill. Both can be learned. So there is never a reason to stay at your current level of development.

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