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4 Levels of Learning

Practitioners who are used to undertaking journeys behind the Blue Door, conduct their regular visits for one single purpose: to learn something new.

With the fields of training, learning and education, practitioners regularly monitor, review and assesses their learners’ progress, and are familiar with a range of tests and observational tools that enable these assessments to take place: critically the allow a measurement of performance, achievement and attainment.

Before embarking on the learning measurement process, we need to have a clear understanding about the overall concept of learning:

  • What is learning?

  • How and when does learning occur?

  • What influences learning?

  • What stimulates learning?

  • What motivates learning?

  • Is learning measurable?

  • How do we know learning has occurred?

The professional approaches associated with training courses and learning programmes explore the concept of learning by using different theories, from various perspectives, such as cognitive, social, psychomotor and affective domains. In doing so, they attempt to address many of the questions outlined above. Inevitably, many of them contrast with one another since they will focus on different styles and types of learning: one critical area being the difference between learning theories associated with young children and adolescents, and theories associated with how adults learn.

As a consequence, it is not surprising that there is a rich and diverse range of definitions associated with the concept of learning. To list but a few, learning is:

  • the act of acquiring new, or modifying and reinforcing existing knowledge, behaviours, skills or values

  • knowledge acquired through study, experience, or being taught

  • the cognitive process of acquiring skill or knowledge.

  • modification of a behavioural tendency by experience

With its roots in clinical psychology, the Four Stages of Learning model (sometimes referred to the 4 stages of competence model) provides a useful framework of learning for individual who intend to learn a new skill – such as problem solving using a different approach.

  1. Unconscious Incompetence

The first stage is when people are not aware that they lack a degree of skill, of competence, or possibly an area of knowledge. It is the place where the learning process begins. “I don’t know that I don’t know how to do this.”

  1. Conscious Incompetence

The second stage is almost like a lightbulb moment: the realisation that in some way you are not competent, or do not know something.

“I now know that I don’t know how to do this.”

Critically, at this point we have a choice, either to embark on the learning process, or not!

The journey between stage 1 and 2, is very quick, when it happens. However, the moment of awareness is not a guarantee, since a person might be seemingly immune to their lack of skill, which is where the blind aspect of the Johari window can offer an alternative insight.

  1. Conscious Competence

This stage of learning is much easier than the second stage, but it is still a bit uncomfortable and self-conscious. A skill or competence is now possible, but it requires deliberate and conscious thought.

“I know that I know how to do this.”

  1. Unconscious CompetenceThe final stage of learning a skill is when it has become a natural part of us; we don’t have to think about it.

“I can do this without thinking about it.”

Example Using the example of learning to drive a car, as a young person, I first thought that all I needed to do was sit behind the wheel and steer and use the pedals. I didn’t realize that driving skills existed or that I had any deficiency in that area. This was the happy stage of unconscious incompetence.

When I first began learning to drive, I realized there was a whole lot more to it than I’d imagined, and I felt a little daunted. This was the stage of my conscious incompetence. There were so many different things to do and think about, literally hundreds of new behaviours to learn.

In this stage, I made lots of mistakes, along with judgments against myself for not already knowing how to do it. Judgment release can be very helpful here in the second stage because mistakes are necessary and integral to the learning process. I just wish I’d known about judgment release when I was in school.

Mistakes are necessary because any skill-learning is essentially experimental and experience-based, trial and error. Information can be accumulated, but until it is practiced and used, it’s only information. It’s not learning, and certainly not a skill.

Sure enough, as I practiced, I began dipping into the third stage of learning, conscious competence. This felt a lot better to me, but still I wasn’t very smooth or fluid in my driving. I often had to think about what to do next, and that felt awkward and uncomfortable. If you’ve ever driven behind a consciously competent driver, you probably know how this is. Practice in this stage is usually much more fruitful than in the second stage.

Finally, after enough practice, I got to the place where I didn’t have to think about every little thing I was doing while driving. I thought about my driving only when something alerted me to it. I became unconsciously competent. Because of the ease and grace in unconscious competence, my driving became much safer.

The model suggests that individuals are initially unaware of how little they know, or unconscious of their incompetence. As they recognize their incompetence, they consciously acquire a skill, then consciously use it. Eventually, the skill can be utilized without it being consciously thought through: the individual is said to have then acquired unconscious competence.

Several elements, including helping someone ‘know what they don’t know’ or recognize a blind spot, can be compared to some elements of a Johari window, although Johari deals with self-awareness, while the four stages of competence deals with learning stages.

One of the interesting challenges for those who intend to master the RESOLVE model, is how to practice the skills associated with managing a difficult conversation since there are many: inter-personal communication, self-awareness, reframing, staying grounded, being present in the moment, suspending judgement etc. The reality is that a degree of self kindness is required: the learning journey simply takes time and there will be experiences along the way where the outcomes were not the ones required or desired. Keeping a learning journal is one way to track progress and to recognise that step by step progress is being made.

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