The Four Stages of Learning

by John Pateros

The learning process has often become more difficult than necessary because of the bad feelings people get when they make mistakes in learning. The bad feelings come from judgments like, "not doing it right," "not good enough," "can never learn this," etc.

Ironically, not doing it right and making mistakes are vital steps in the learning process. Yet too often our attention goes to trying to avoid the bad feelings, rather than to the learning at hand. Understanding the four stages of learning a skill can help keep the learning process focused on learning to do something, and not feeling bad about ourselves for not already knowing how.

The four stages of learning, also known as the four stages of competence where first uncovered by Noel Burch of Gordon Training International, although Abraham Maslow is often erroneously credited.

1. Unconscious Incompetence

"I don't know that I don't know how to do this." This is the stage of blissful ignorance before learning begins.

2. Conscious Incompetence

"I know that I don't know how to do this, yet." This is the most difficult stage, where learning begins, and where the most judgments against self are formed. This is also the stage that most people give up.

3. Conscious Competence

"I know that I know how to do this." This stage of learning is much easier than the second stage, but it is still a bit uncomfortable and self-conscious.

4. Unconscious Competence

"What, you say I did something well?" The final stage of learning a skill is when it has become a natural part of us; we don't have to think about it.

Using the example of learning to drive a car, as a child 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 behaviors 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 necessay 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.