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From Ignorance to Mastery: How Adults Learn

Watch this video to shed light on the struggles that often accompany personal growth and professional development. 

Becoming a better team member, manager, or leader is a learning process. Through continuous learning we grow our knowledge and skills, build our capacity to take on new challenges, and push closer to achieving our potential. If you are curious about how you can improve or how to foster growth in others, it is important to understand how learning works, specifically for adults.

In my coaching work I have observed a range of perspectives on learning. Some of my clients feel that they have “arrived” and are not very open to learning. Others are more willing to learn but feel stuck in a loop on the same issue. Some spend a lot of time and effort pursuing training that ultimately has little impact.

The truth is that learning is a journey. Reflecting on where you are in the learning process will help you prioritize what is important, more accurately gauge your progress, and shed light on the struggles that often accompany personal growth and professional development.

Fortunately, we have a simple four-stage model to help illustrate this.

From Ignorance to Mastery in Four Stages

The science of developing learning strategies for adults is called andragogy. In the 1970's, Psychologist Noel Burch made one of the most significant contributions to understanding how adults learn. Burch suggested a four-stage model to describe how people go from ignorance to mastery of a skill. He called it the Conscious Competence Learning Model:

Psychologist Noel Burch's four-stage learning model describing the fundamental levels of learning for any adult on their journey through ignorance to skills mastery.

Level 1: Unconscious Incompetence

Adults at the first stage, “Unconscious Incompetence” are unaware of behaviors and habits that are holding them back. They are falling short of their potential due to limiting behaviors or lack of skill, but they are unable to perceive this. In other words, they don't know what they don't know. Their confidence may exceed their abilities due to having one or more blind spots.

People at this stage are lacking awareness. They are missing or ignoring critical information about themselves and how others perceive them. For learning to begin, they must be willing to take an honest look at their weaknesses and consider new perspectives.  Psychometric tests, performance reviews, 360-degree assessments, feedback from peers, colleagues, and family (read our post about Giving Effective Feedback), and the support of a professional coach are all fantastic ways to seek growth opportunities. Once they understand their weakness and where to focus their attention, the learning process can move forward. 

Level 2: Conscious Incompetence

In Burch's second stage, appropriately named "Conscious Incompetence", adults have become aware of an opportunity and need to learn and improve. They can now perceive limiting behaviors or where a lack of skill is holding them back. They start to notice that others are more advanced than they are. They begin to test new behaviors but, at this early stage, may not see results.

People in this stage may become overwhelmed by what seems to be a vast body of knowledge which they are not quite grasping. Many give up. To move beyond this stage, celebrating small successes, staying positive, and finding the determination to learn and improve is essential. They will make mistakes—but they must keep going.

Level 3: Conscious Competence

In the third level, “Conscious Competence,” a person has acquired the skill he or she set out to learn and can demonstrate it regularly. His or her confidence is improving, but it still takes concentration and intention to perform. In this stage, complacency is the enemy. Practice must continue as mistakes will still be made. In fact, trial and error is necessary to keep learning the skill.

Level 4: Unconscious Competence

Finally, those who have passed through all previous stages reach the fourth and final phase, “Unconscious Competence.” In this stage, application of the skill is automatic, understanding is high, and the skill is now a strength. 

Those attaining this level of ability must continually seek feedback and guard against regression. Without practice, there is always a risk of falling back to previous stages. Sharing what you've learned with your peers and becoming a mentor is a way to stay sharp.

The Four Stages of a Golf Swing

Imagine a decent golfer, consistent and happy with his game. One day, an experienced pro comments on the golfer’s swing, identifying some mechanical issues that are limiting the golfer’s performance. The golfer is surprised to receive this feedback (Unconscious Incompetence) but is intrigued by the idea of getting better.

By paying more attention to his swing and recording himself during practice, the golfer can clearly visualize the flaw (Conscious Incompetence). The golfer becomes determined to address the issue, hiring the pro to help change his swing and committing to weekly practice sessions. 

In the months that follow, the golfer slowly applies the new swing, albeit inconsistently and with some frustration. He begins to notice some measurable changes (Conscious Competence). 

A year later the new swing has become automatic; the golfer no longer has to actively worry about employing the proper technique. It happens naturally. He continues to practice regularly and can move on to the next challenge (Unconscious Competence).

Learning is a Journey

If this four stage model tells you anything, it is that learning is a journey, not a destination. Those who want to improve must always be willing to build awareness, seek feedback, prioritize their learning needs, and be determined to succeed. 

We have discussed the importance of discoverymentorship, and readiness in the context of learning in past posts. However, more fundamentally, it is helpful to reflect on the underlying process by which adults learn. 

To make the best use of this post, ask yourself the following questions. 

  • Are you genuinely open to taking an objective look at yourself to learn your strengths and weaknesses? 
  • What sources of information do you have access to that can help you build awareness? 
  • Think of one skill or behavior you’ve been trying to improve. What stage in the Conscious Competence model are you currently in? 
  • What steps might you take to ensure that you continue to move forward? 
  • Think of someone else you know that is in the midst of a learning experience and which stage they are in. Does reflecting on this change your perspective on how they are doing?

If you have questions of your own, thoughts, or experiences you'd like to share, please let us know in the comments below.