Learning about Learning

I love learning! If I’m honest, I’m something of a learning junkie. But I know that as we get older, even past 25, it becomes harder to learn a new skill. It can even seem unpleasant at times, certainly uncomfortable. That’s possibly why a lot of us give up at a certain stage and decide it’s not worth carrying on. Let’s face it – who wants to feel or look stupid?

When I was introduced to the four stages of learning years ago by Dr Graeme Codrington, it made me a lot more patient with myself when learning a new skill. I’ve integrated into my coaching since then so that people can understand the learning process. If some people don’t seem to struggle, it may be that they’ve accepted or embraced the uncomfortable stages. Such people may be either more emotionally robust or are better at keeping the end goal in sight.

The four stages of learning are unconscious incompetence, conscious incompetence, conscious competence and unconscious competence
We all go through these four stages

The image above shows the four stages. The theory was developed at Gordon Training International by its employee Noel Burch.

To explain how it works, I’ve created the following analogy with driving. Imagine you haven’t learnt to drive yet but have often seen others drive. You think driving looks pretty easy and straightforward. You are unconsciously incompetent because you don’t know what you don’t know. Ignorance is bliss!

Now it’s your turn to learn: you sit behind the wheel. Suddenly, you realise you actually know nothing about driving. You feel more ignorant than when you were in the passenger seat. What an uncomfortable feeling! You are consciously incompetent, knowing what you don’t know. Then, with the careful guidance of the instructor, you slowly learn how to do everything and in which order to do it. You still feel uncomfortable and it’s all quite stressful as you have to think about everything you’re doing.

After ongoing practice you become successful and know what to do consciously – you are consciously competent. There is a sense of achievement but you still need to do everything in a deliberate manner. Gradually and often imperceptibly you begin to check your mirrors automatically and then indicate and even change gears. The whole process becomes quite organic. What a pleasure! You are unconsciously competent.

One of my joys in voice and speech coaching is seeing students reach a stage of presenting themselves at their very best. Because both the skills of standing upright and speaking were learned when we were toddlers, it can be a pretty self-conscious experience to revisit them as an adult. But this is necessary to identify blocks and instil good practice through techniques that restore good support, breath control and speech. While retaining the unique character of the person who came through my doors initially, I help the student develop and project a professional persona. The learning has fallen into place and they are successful. Without even having to think about it!

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