The Four Steps of Learning – The Learning Ladder

I read an excellent book last year Connectome by Sebastian Seung, Professor of Computational Neuroscience and Physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. There was, at least for me, an unexpected quote in the introduction which was:

“I’m sorry. You thought I’m a professor because I know the answers. Actually I’m a professor because I know how much I don’t know.”

To see why Sebastian makes this claim see this fascinating talk on TED.

The idea of knowing “how much I don’t know” is a key element of a learning model that has been around a couple of thousand years but became formalised in the 1970’s. The model is known as the Learning Ladder or the Conscious Competence Ladder.

Simplistically the model is based on the concept that we all move through four stages of learning a new skill or developing a new competence, starting from not knowing that we don’t know how to do something right and moving through a transition until we are so competent that we are not aware that we do know it. As such it can be a valuable tool in understanding the stages an individual is at in their learning and how to adjust your coaching to take this into account. It can also be a helpful self diagnostic tool if we can be honest with ourselves.

Whilst the model has four steps, it is of course the case that at any one time we may be at any step of the ladder, and for any particular issue we wont necessarily start on the bottom rung.

Unconscious incompetenceYou don’t know what you don’t know.

  • The individual is not aware that he does not have a particular competence – he is blissfully ignorant.
  • This could result in that individual’s confidence far exceeding his abilities or a denial of the usefulness of the skill or competence.
  • The challenge for the coach is to enable the individual to recognise his own incompetence and the value of the new skill, and therefore want to move forward.

Conscious incompetenceYou know what you don’t know.

  • The individual knows that he wants to learn how to do something but is incompetent at doing it – he recognises both the deficiency and the value of the new skill. (This is where Sebastian Seung stated he was in the introduction to his book.)
  • This step is an opportunity to develop but can be hindered by a desire to ‘fake it’ and cover up the incompetence. The opportunity can also be derailed by a feeling of hopelessness or a drop in confidence may drop.
  • The challenge for the coach is to help steer the individual through these negative emotions and up to the next step.

Conscious competenceYou Know that You Know or You practice what you know.

  • The individual may be able to achieve a particular task but it requires concentration to execute the new skill.
  • Depending on the challenge, becoming consciously competent can take a while as the individual steadily learns and progresses in what is often not a straight upward line; fits and starts are almost inevitable.
  • The individual should gain confidence as he puts his learning into practice and works on refining his new skills, and as the individual works on the skills he should, in time, find that they become increasingly automatic.
  • The challenge for the coach is to help the individual overcome the natural frustrations that he will encounter and to encourage continued development of the skill.

Unconscious competenceYou Don’t Know that You Know – It Just Seems Easy.

  • The individual has had so much practice with a skill that it has become “second nature” and can be performed easily.
  • Even if the skill is not performed for long periods, skilled performers can go back to it without any difficulty and perform again as well as if they had never been away.
  • At this level the new skills become habits, and the task can be performed without conscious effort, resulting in a peak of both confidence and ability.
  • The task of the coach is not finished – the coach needs to ensure that the individual avoids complacency. It can also be useful to remind the individual how difficult it was to reach this step, so that he can be tolerant with people at the conscious incompetence step.

However, it is not just simply a matter of going up the ladder – it can be an iterative process as you learn something you may realise there is more you need to learn and, again, a good coach could be very valuable.