Have you ever stopped to think about how you learn a new skill? Probably not. For most of us, it’s just something that we have to do from time to time. But other people have put considerable effort into thinking about how people learn, and have come up with several theories about change and learning. Perhaps the simplest and most accessible is the Competence Cycle of Learning.

Modelling awareness
Sometimes called the ‘Conscious Competence Cycle’, this model was first formulated in the late 1960s or early 1970s, by a man called Martin Broadwell, who was interested in teaching. It was taken up and developed further by the US organisation Gordon Training, during the 1970s. Although these are the earliest records of the cycle actually being written down, it often feels like it’s been around so long that you will probably find people prepared to argue that it was Confucius who first proposed it.

Four stages of learning
The model sets out four stages of learning: Unconscious Incompetence, Conscious Incompetence, Conscious Competence and finally Unconscious Competence.

  • The first stage, unconscious incompetence, defines a stage when you don’t know that you’re no good at something, or you don’t see the benefits of learning it. Think of a baby who doesn’t even know that there is such a thing as a bicycle, or a child who has no idea that there are languages other than their mother tongue.
  • The second stage, conscious incompetence, is when you become aware that you don’t know something, or are not very good at a particular skill. This would be the child who sees other children riding bicycles. There is general agreement that this stage is absolutely crucial to learning: you have to realise that you’re no good at something, and that possessing the skill would help you, to give you the motivation to work to acquire it.
  • In the third stage, conscious competence, you have become able to do the skill, but you still have to think about as you do it. Think here of a child who has successfully learnt to balance their bike, but still falls off if they aren’t looking what they’re doing.
  • The final stage is unconscious competence. At this stage, you have become so good at the skill that you have hard-wired it into your brain, and it has become instinct.

Possible fifth stage
Some commentators, perhaps uncomfortable with the idea of branding someone ‘incompetent’, have suggested that the stages should be described as accidental, intentional, skilful, and mastery. So if you are in the first stage in relation to a particular skill, the only way you would come across it would be accidentally. But you might be interested enough to find out more, and try to develop the skill (intention), and if you tried hard enough, you would probably develop the skill (skilful). If you kept going, you might even develop mastery. This is really just another way of looking at the same ideas, but perhaps with less judgemental language.

There has been considerable debate about a possible fifth stage, and two main contenders have emerged: ‘complacency’ and ‘enlightened competence’. The former describes a state in which you believe that you know how to do something so well that you have nothing new to learn. However, it could be argued that you have really, at this stage, completed the cycle, and returned to the unconscious incompetence stage. In the latter state, you have hard-wired the skill into your brain, but have then become aware of it, to such an extent that you can explain or teach it to others.

Implications for coaching
This cycle is not just interesting in its own right, but has implications for continuous learning. In order for learning to be effective, it is argued, the teacher or coach must aim the learning at the correct point in the learning cycle. It is no good trying to move someone from conscious incompetence to conscious competence if they do not realise they have anything to learn.

When we coach thought leaders, we find that the first step is the most critical – the dawning awareness that while they have great ideas, the process of packaging and delivering them is a completely different proposition. The speed at which candidates move through the stages vary based on commitment and willingness to practice. And the move from conscious competence to unconscious competence requires delicate coaching; we rarely need to introduce new material, rather, maintain active feedback.


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