Stages of Learning

When you’re being immersed in new skills and information it can be helpful to remember that learning is a process, and most of us don’t just magically look at something and “get it”.

Here is a theory that was developed at the Gordon Training International by Noel Burch. I was first introduced to the concept by Scott Brown of Sword to Sword at the Shenandoah Project. The following description was copied from the wikipedia page, except for the italics, which are my shorthand for each stage:

stage one: Unconscious* Incompetence
I don’t know what I don’t know.
The individual does not understand or know how to do something and does not necessarily recognize the deficit. They may deny the usefulness of the skill. The individual must recognise their own incompetence, and the value of the new skill, before moving on to the next stage. The length of time an individual spends in this stage depends on the strength of the stimulus to learn.

Conscious Incompetence
I am aware that I don’t know.
Though the individual does not understand or know how to do something, he or she does recognize the deficit, as well as the value of a new skill in addressing the deficit. The making of mistakes can be integral to the learning process at this stage.

Conscious Competence
I can do it when I think about it.
The individual understands or knows how to do something. However, demonstrating the skill or knowledge requires concentration. It may be broken down into steps, and there is heavy conscious involvement in executing the new skill.

Unconscious Competence
I can do it without thinking about it.
The individual has had so much practice with a skill that it has become “second nature” and can be performed easily. As a result, the skill can be performed while executing another task.

In the learning process, you’ll move back and forth between stages, and each skill will likely be at a different stage at any given time. Being made aware of these stages has made learning less frustrating. Just because you are suddenly back down to Conscious Competence after being at Unconscious Competence doesn’t mean you’ll never get back have Unconscious Competence again. It’s just part of the process. This can be particularly useful in stage combat where you’re dealing with your own learning process, your partner’s learning process, and the process of learning how to work within a partnership. Sometimes one class is going better than another, and people blame it on the weapon, the teacher, or any number of factors. These may all be valid reasons, but sometimes it’s just helpful to take a step back and be able to say, “oh, I’m at Conscious Incompetence with this. I need a bit of help”, or whatever stage you’re at. Have patience with yourself, your partner and the process.

*Some people have noted that Conscious/Unconscious isn’t quite the right word. The idea is are you aware of it or not.

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