Mastery is the Fifth Stage, of the Four Stages of Learning

Oct 3, 2014 | Accelerated Learning, Cognitive Patterns, High Performance, Personal Change | 0 comments

What are the Four Stages of Learning?  Why is it that Mastery is not among them?

Some would have you believe that being unconsciously great at something is equivalent to mastery of that thing. Becoming unconsciously great at a skill is a wonderful goal, and is certainly an accomplishment that attracts attention. It may even be what earns you a fabulous living. But… that’s not mastery.

When you master a thing, you’re taking a step beyond just being great. You’re going beyond unconscious competence, and re-learning all the details you probably forgot, when you were getting unconsciously great at a skill.

What are the Four Stages of Learning?

You’ve likely heard of these before. If you want more information on the source of this model for learning, this link to Wikipedia will help. Essentially, here’s a summary:

  • Unconscious Incompetence
  • Conscious Incompetence
  • Conscious Competence
  • Unconscious Competence

Essentially, when you first approach learning a new skill, you’re unconsciously incompetent.  You don’t even know how bad you are at it.  And if you try it and fail, you often can’t even tell why you fail at it.

As you practice a skill, you gain conscious incompetence, and you begin to know why you’re not yet good at the skill.  You build awareness and filters and you don’t have skill yet, you make a lot of mistakes, but you start learning from them.

As you continue to practice, you eventually find yourself getting better results.  But its not easy to keep getting those results, becaue you have to keep working hard at it.  You become consciously competent.   And eventually, if you keep practicing, your brain starts to chunk all those hard-to-remember details into a higher level process.  And you start getting better and better results, without even thinking about what you’re doing.  Pretty soon, you’re on autopilot, because you’re unconsciously competent.  But there is one enormous problem looming ahead:

Unconscious Competence breeds Complacency and False Sense of Expertise.

Just because you’re really good at something does not mean you know how to teach it.  It doesn’t mean you can explain it.  In fact, because moving from CC to UC requires the brain to chunk up and combine details into a higher level representation, any attempt to teach or train what you’re good at, to others, is bound to fail.  Because the very process of becoming unconsciously competent required you to forget conscious access to the detailed how-to knowledge.

Now, today, too many fields are chock full of consciously or unconsciously competent “experts” who couldn’t possibly impart deep skill to you.  Why?  Because…

Mastery of anything requires a minimum of two passes through the Four Learning Stages.

Due to how learning/chunking works, you can only occupy ONE learning stage at a time for any given skill (or area). Once you push through a threshold from one stage to the other, your brain generalizes what it learned and then can not access it the same way it did, previously. This is why  people who reach unconscious competence often can’t easily explain what they know  (and another reason why it takes NLP Modelers to unravel what experts actually know).

Many, many people aren’t aware of this.  Those who are probably wish I hadn’t shared it… because they’ll be losing money now that you are.  Here’s why:

To train anything, congruently, a teacher has to be able to both demonstrate it elegantly and masterfully — and explain it well, to varied ears. Demonstrating it both consciously and unconsciously well.  That can never happen when a teacher is still going through their first pass through the learning stages. It’s not neurologically possible.

For someone to be able to explain or train something well, they need to reach UC, and then go back to the foundation and re-learn it from the ground up. This time, they’re re-learning the foundation after having already acquired UC, so as to remind themselves of the conscious details they’d long since forgotten (that chunked up, en route to UC).

This is why it’s unreasonable whenever someone suggests they want to send someone to an event, and have them come back and explain what they’ve learned or teach it to others. They’ll be able to NAME what they’ve learned, but they won’t be able to both explain it and demonstrate it, well.

Wanting to master something is a wonderful pursuit.  If you want to master it AND teach it, you’ll need to learn your craft, fully, at least twice.

Mastery is Stage Five.

We all know that once we become unconsciously competent, the very act of doing so requires that we chunk details up, and that causes us to forget specifics. If we try to explain specifics after that happens, our explanations would have come out sloppy, and incomplete.

The only way to have both unconscious competence AND conscious competence at the same time — is to go back to school and re-learn everything a second time. It can’t happen otherwise.

What people find, when and if they do this, is that (a) we spend almost no time in “unconscious incompetence” the second time through, and also, the time it takes to go through conscious incompetence back into conscious competence is much shorter the second time. But just because its faster the second time, does not make this process any less necessary.

We re-approach the details of the skills we became great at doing, and we re-learn those details. Yes, they make more sense this time. But everyone who does this has some rude awakenings, because doing this inevitably brings our attention to details we didn’t realize we’d forgotten (during our pursuit of unconscious competence). So it’s incredibly valuable for everyone when we do this process. New students will need those details, and if we hadn’t gone through this second run-through of the learning stages, we might have forgotten to train these to new students!

That re-discovery is exactly what happens when we move through the learning stages again, all the way up to conscious competence (and we never lose our unconscious competence as long as we keep practicing it).

Choose teachers or trainers who have gone through the learning stages, twice.

How can you tell if your trainer or teacher has done this?

  1. Can they demonstrate what they’re training at high or real-time speed, without either delay or note-checking? Can they do it conversationally while they do other things without seeming to think about it?
  2. When asked for a breakdown, can they explain what took place in detail, and, are you finding their comments 100% accurate according to your memory? Or are they referring only to clues that they know you’re not yet trained to notice?
  3. Do well-known more experienced trainers or master trainers say good things about them as trainers/teachers? What about other students who have also trained with those more experienced trainers? What do people with better-trained filters than your own, say about the teacher you plan to learn from?  New students do not yet have the awareness or metnal filters to be able to pick up the relevant nuances.

These aren’t the only criteria I can think of, but they’re among the best. The most important thing to know is that any expert can be unconsciously competent but be confused by details, OR, be gifted at explaining but not be able to demonstrate real-time elegance with the skill in question. Either of these qualities are clear evidence showing that expert has not gone on to real mastery — which is the combination of unconscious competence AND conscious competence.

Here’s my perspective: unless I’m intentionally doing NLP modeling of an expert’s expertise, I won’t personally invest in attending a class unless I can somehow first verify the teacher has already reached mastery of their expertise. Why invest in anything less?