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Understanding The Process of Learning

· learning,Education,Research
A worryingly common approach to learning:

Carlos looks at the screen over Jenny’s shoulder, rolling his eyes. “No, you input the figure from form 2a before you can calculate the overall output.” He declares in frustration. Jenny grimaces and sinks down in her chair a little. “It’s been 5 days,” she thinks, “Everyone else can do it, I ought to remember this by now.” Carlos lets out a heavy sigh and looks at the clock. “Right, let’s go again.”

Who do you spend more time feeling like? A frustrated teacher who can’t seem to find that moment when the penny drops? Or maybe a slow student who isn’t learning the ropes fast enough?

Hopefully neither situation occurs too often – because you understand the process of learning…

The Learning Ladder

I’ve seen this done in a number of ways: usually as a learning ladder or learning matrix. In either case the four stages of learning are the same but presented slightly differently. Understanding these four stages can really help you to get the best out of yourself and others during the learning process. This applies to learning anything at all; entering data correctly, driving a car, learning the guitar, tying shoelaces, reading, solving equations and much more. My personal favourite as an example is driving a car.

The four stages of learning are unconscious incompetence, conscious incompetence, conscious competence and unconscious competence.
Stage 1 – Unconscious Incompetence

You don’t know that you can’t do it.

As a baby you don’t realise that you can’t drive a car… and many other things for that matter. You are still learning about the world and may not have an awareness of all the tasks that are out there. At this stage of learning people are generally happy in relation to the skill or activity in question because they are blissfully unaware of the existence of that thing. This can sometimes be problematic for others who are at a more advanced level. Take for instance a child with an infant sibling. “What do you mean he can’t walk? He’s got legs!” Sometimes we can take for granted the skills others may or may not have because our own experiences form the basics of our perspective.

To move out of this stage we need awareness. Someone or something to help us realise that a particular skill exists and we don’t have it yet. This needs to be done sensitively and constructively – especially if it is something someone of a similar age would normally have learned to do.  

Stage 2 – Conscious Incompetence

You know that you can’t do it.

When you get to 3, 4 or 5 years old you become aware of cars. They are metal boxes that grown ups control for you. You can’t drive them, but that’s not your problem for now. At this stage you can be very happy indeed – either because you are not interested in learning that skill or because you are accepting that you are not ready for it. But as you creep closer to 17 your feelings may start to change.

Stage 2 of learning is conscious incompetence - you become aware that you can't do something... yet.

Negative comparisons – As human beings we are insistent in comparing ourselves with others and this can often have negative effects on us. There will always be someone better than us which makes us feel underdeveloped in our own skills. Conversely there will always be someone worse than us whom we may feel we have ‘beaten’ – another unhealthy mindset to have. For some, this comparison can act as a motivator to get a move on and learn, but often it is a form of self degradation.

Being proactive – ideally what would happen at this stage is someone would make a proactive decision “I can’t do ______ YET but I would like to learn.” They would then undertake a process of tuition, training, practice and / or research in order to begin learning the skill.

This stage of learning is the hardest place to be…

Five lessons into driving and you still don’t feel you can work the car. Harry was doing roundabouts by lesson 4. Why can’t I be more like that? Maybe this just isn’t for me?

This is the place where we are most likely to feel like giving up. There may not be any concrete results as of yet but your awareness of others’ performance is still high and this leads to self doubt. To successfully move out of this stage we need resilience and self acceptance. Keeping going means you will see results soon and accepting that you learn at your own pace reduces the impact that comparisons may have on your emotional state.

Stage 3 – Conscious Competence

You know that you can do it.

You are 19 with a driving license in hand and insurance to drive around in your parents' car. It’s exciting and satisfying to have learned the skill but it’s still something that takes effort. You need the radio off to concentrate on the road and going somewhere unfamiliar can be a bit of a challenge. Generally speaking at this stage you feel quite happy with yourself but you can also be tired after long periods of time doing the activity because of the effort it takes. You may also be slower or slightly less ‘polished’ than someone at stage 4 which may come with a small dose of negative comparison.

To move on to the next stage you need practice. Continuing to put in extra hours will hone the skills, make things more automatic and allow you to use up less effort in doing the task.

Stage 3 of learning, conscious competence, means you can do it but it takes effort.
Stage 4 – Unconscious Competence

You don’t know that can do it.

Now in some cases this might mean being completely oblivious, in others it may just mean you take it for granted a little. You are now 29 with 10 years worth of driving experience under your belt. If someone asked you to list all of your skills you may not think about driving because it has become so natural to you. Sometimes you make a journey with the radio on, have a good sing along, get to your front door and forget how you got there. Or go back to the car to check if it is locked to find you did it without thinking about it. At this stage the skill has become so integrated that you hardly event have to think about it, and sometimes don’t appreciate the difficulty involved in doing it.

Teaching others – most people who teach others do so because they are at stage 4 themselves. However, teachers in stage 4 are in such a different place to those in stage 2 that they can become frustrated. I can do this easily so what’s taking you so long? Or they can find it hard to articulate how to do something they do so easily. Can you imagine explaining to someone how to walk? Or use a pen? You just get on and do it. But someone in stage 2 needs a patient, step by step approach. To be able to teach others you have to empathise – remember what it was like for you when you were learning and appreciate that the other person needs time.

Falling down the ladder – Achieving stage 4 doesn’t necessarily mean that skill is banked for life. Some things fade away without practice such as being able to run a distance in a particular time. Some skills stay for a long time (you never forget how to ride a bike apparently) but can still be interfered with…

You have been driving your car for a while now and want something sportier. Upgrading to a newer model should be a breeze for someone with 10 years experience but you are frustrated to find that you keep stalling the car and turning the wipers on at the junctions instead of indicating. Small changes in the routine have thrown you off and you go back to feeling stupid again because this ought to be something you can do.

Stage 4 - unconscious competence means skills are second nature to you. But beware falling down the learning ladder.

To stay at this stage you need to continue practicing to maintain a good skill level and be aware of new information. Many things may interrupt your flow. Having a broken leg completely changes the way you walk, driving a left hand car means you have to reverse your whole way of operating. In times like this where you are knocked back down the ladder it is also important that you continue to use self acceptance. It’s natural to go back a stage when new information comes in, and once again you just need to give yourself time to adjust.

A positive approach to learning:

Carlos looks at the screen over Jenny’s shoulder, smiling. “Remember to input the figure from form 2a before you calculate the overall output.” He says reassuringly. Jenny gives a short sigh and changes it. “It’s been 5 days,” she thinks, “I can do the first half of the form now but I still need to work on getting this order right.” Carlos says “Don’t worry about it. You’re getting it bit by bit and it took me a while when I first learned too. Let’s go again.”

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