Learning a Skill: The Conscious-Competence Ladder
The Conscious-Competence Ladder is a model of learning that was first developed by Noel Burch of the Gordon Training International organisation in the 1970's. It shows how we all move through 4 stages of learning a new skill from a state of not knowing that we don't know how to do something right through to not knowing that we do know it. The model describes the process of skill development and awareness and is a valuable tool in understanding the stages an individual is at in their learning and how to adjust your coaching or instruction to take this into account.
The Four Stages in the Conscious-Competence Ladder
Here are the 4 stages in the Conscious-Competence Ladder as applied to learning to drive a car:
i. Unconscious Incompetence
The Unconscious Incompetence stage is the first stage of skill learning. It means you are not aware of how to do something. In the example of learning to drive a car, it is the stage before your first driving lesson. You have not yet been shown how little you know and how much you have to learn. Trainers often find resistance to learning from people at this stage who do not know that they do not know.
ii. Conscious Incompetence
Once the first phase has been encountered, there is often a rapid move to the second stage, the Conscious Competence stage. This is where people come to realise that they don't know how to perform the skill. In the driving example, it is the stage when people realise that understanding the controls on a car and negotiating street conditions is much harder than they thought. They fail to do well more often than they succeed. This stage is often accompanied by a feeling of hopelessness or "Am I ever going to learn this?"
iii. Conscious Competence
With time, good feedback, and regular practice, the learner moves out of a place of getting things mostly wrong into a place of getting things mostly right. However, this is only achieved by care and thought. In other words, the competence comes with effort. One of the ways a good trainer can help someone at this stage is to provide plenty of tips, techniques, and tricks to help the learner succeed. In the example of driving a car, it's when the learner consciously practices what he or she has read in the Highway code and applies the "rules of the road" that the instructor has taught them.
iv. Unconscious Competence
With further practice, the learnt skill gradually becomes second nature to the user. They can do it without thinking. They can even do it while thinking about something else. And, because they learnt competence consciously, they can now apply the rules habitually and unconsciously. The "how to do the skill" has become part of the person. When people reach this stage, the skill has stuck. Even if it is not performed for long periods, skilled performers can go back to it without any difficulty and perform again as well as if they had never been away.
Applications of the Conscious-Competence Ladder
Here are some of the ways for trainers to apply the principles of the Conscious-Competence Ladder.
i. at the first stage, Unconscious Incompetence, focus on the benefits of learning the skill not on the process of learning
ii. at the second stage, Conscious Incompetence, help people through the arid plain of learning when more goes wrong than right
iii. at the third stage, Conscious Competence, give people lots of tips, tricks, and techniques to help them achieve some successes
iv. at the fourth stage, Unconscious Competence, praise the learner and reinforce the learning.