Conscious Competence Adult Learning Theory

The Four stages of learning model provides a useful adult learning theory explanation of the key learning stages people progress through. It is a popular and intuitive approach that helps us manage our own emotions during a sometimes frustrating learning process. More than this, it helps us to be more in touch with the emotions of the people we are teaching, so we can better coach them through the learning process.

Maslow never did much with what has come to be known as The Four Stages of Learning model (sometimes called the conscious competence model or the  four stages of competence) but it has become a popular component of modern adult learning theory.

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adult learning theory

Adult learning Theory

1.Unconscious Incompetence(you don't know that you don't know something), to

2.Conscious Incompetence(you are now aware that you are incompetent at something), to

3.Conscious Competence(you develop a skill in that area but have to think about it),to the finalstage

4.Unconscious Competence(you are good at it and it now comes naturally).

Modern adult learning theory then suggests a possible reversion to the start of the process.

Unconscious incompetence

If you are an unconscious incompetent, you don’t know what youdon’t know. In other words the individual neither understands nor knows how to do something, nor recognizes the deficit, nor has a desire to address it.

In this state, you may be in one of two positions. Ignorance is bliss, as they say, and you may well be happily naive, not realizing that you are not competent.. You  couldbe headed for great opportunity or terrible disaster and not see it because everything seems to be in its place.

The state of unconscious incompetence doesn’t mean we or our companies are inactive or oblivious. In fact our attention is taken up with a myriad of important and urgent things that need doing every day. Unconscious incompetence refers to blind\\\\ spots thatkeep us from maximizing value or mitigating unnecessary risk.

There being no evidence to the contrary, companies and their people drift along in the state of unconscious incompetence as if everything were just as it must be.

These blind spots can arise for a number of reasons:

Some blind spots are at least partly wilful.

From the recent collapse of much of the banking sector , analysts and rating agencies were in a state of unconscious incompetence when they failed to press for more detail on transactions they didn’t understand and passively accepted pronouncementsthat the formulae were too complicated to explain.

Some blind spots are arrogant, or at least careless.

Underestimating the strength of a competitor or rival is an expression of unconscious incompetence.

Some blind spots result from tunnel vision

Discounting or otherwise failing to leverage the strength of a business unit or even a colleague is unconscious incompetence.  

When we find that we don’t know something important, we’re often motivated to learn more. However if we’re blissfully unaware of our ignorance, there’s little we can do about it.

Adult Learning Theory

Conscious incompetence

As a conscious incompetent, you realize that you are not as expert as perhaps you thought you were or thought you could be. Though the individual does not understand or know how to do something, he or she does recognize the deficit, without yet addressing it.

The transition to this state from being unconsciously incompetent can be a shocking and sudden realization, for example when you meet others who are clearly more competent than you, or when a boss or peer  holds up a metaphorical mirror to your real competence.

You can also exist in this state for a long time, depending on factors such as your determination to learn and the real extent to which you accept your incompetence. Crossing that threshold to consciousness does not in any way supply sudden, global insight into everything we don’t know. It simply means we’ve become aware of a blind spot.

Which is why Conscious Incompetence does not always present itself as good news. It is after all a realization that we are not as clever as we thought. This is seldom greeted as a positive development.

Conscious Incompetence may be, as the Oxford American Dictionary suggests, a state of undue self-awareness. Individuals and or people in the organizationmay be embarrassed by the magnitude of the ignorance that has come to light. They may feel overwhelmed, maybe defensive, perhaps vulnerable.

Adult Learning Theory:

Conscious competence

Becoming consciously competent often takes a while, as you steadily learn about the new area, either through experience or more formal learning. Here the individual understands or knows how to do something. However, demonstrating the skill or knowledge requires a great deal of consciousness or concentration This process may not follow a classical learning curve it can go in fits and starts as you learn, forget, plateau and start anew.

The more complex the new area and the less talent you have for it, the longerthis will take. The good news is that many people have achieved remarkable feats of learning through sheer persistence.

Explaining the Model:

According to this approach, consciousness is the first step towards gaining knowledge. To learn new skills and to gain knowledge you need to be conscious of what you do and do not know. Now we understand the popularity of 360 peer feedback  and feed forward programmes.

Next, competence is your ability to do things. You may be highly competent inone area, but have no skill in another. Your competence level will depend on the task or job at hand.

Unconscious competence

Eventually you reach a point where you no longer have to think about what you are doing, and are competent without the significant effort that characterizes the state of conscious competence. The individual has had so much practice with a skill that it becomes "second nature" and can be performed easily (often without concentrating too deeply). From a neuroscience perspective the new behaviours have been successfully hard-wired.

How does this framework help leaders and managers?

These adult learning theory components: the conscious competence ladder helps us in two ways: It gives us reassurance when we need it, and it helps us coach others through a sometimes difficult learning process.

During the Conscious Incompetence phase of adult learning theory, we have the reassurance that while things are difficult and frustrating right now, things will get much better in the future.

And when we're at the stage of Unconscious Competence, the model reminds us to value the skills we have so painstakingly acquired.

As an approach to coaching others, it reminds us that people may be moving through these steps as they learn the new skills we're trying to teach them:

  • Unconscious Incompetence: At thebeginning of the process, they may be unaware of their own lack of competence, and may need to be made gently aware of how much they need to learn. Developing this self awareness may be the initial first step in the adult learning process
  • Conscious Incompetence: During this stage, you'll need to provide plenty of encouragement, tolerate mistakes appropriately, and do what you can to help people improve. Here learning needs to be nurtured like a green shoot adult learning theory tells us that too much stress and anxiety will interfere or block learning .
  • Conscious Competence: At this stage you need to keep people focused on effective performance of the task, and give plenty of opportunities for them to get practice. At this stage the learners particularly if they are leaders require good feedback loops and an encouragement to continually reflect. This is about bedding in new habits and encouraging higher levels of performance. A great opportunity here is to encouragethe learner to teach others.
  • Unconscious Competence:Although this is the ideal state for many activities , you'll need to make sure that people stay up to date in their fields and avoid complacency. Again look for extension opportunitiesand encourage those reflective habits. You might also need to remind people how difficult it was to reach this stage, so that they can be more tolerant with new learners  at the conscious incompetence stage!



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