From Deficiency to Competency – The Four Phases of Learning

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One of my philosophies for personal development is that the journey for personal growth involves taking one’s deficiencies and building them into competencies. Building competencies is different than mere education, however, as education is merely the absorption of information without any working application of that information. Building a competency not only involves the absorption of information, but also involves the application of that information through challenging academic or physical trials. For example, I can lecture to you in great depth on martial arts techniques, but unless you practice those movements yourself, you will only possess information on those techniques, rather than being competent in their application.

The path towards transforming a deficiency into a competency involves an understanding of how human beings learn. The conscious competence learning model states that whenever an individual develops a new skill; they go through four distinct levels of learning to build that deficiency into a competency.

These Phases are:

Phase I: Unconscious Incompetence (“We don’t know that we don’t know”)

Phase II: Conscious Incompetence (“We know that we don’t know”)

Phase III: Conscious Competence (“We know that we know”)

Phase IV: Unconscious Competence (“We don’t know that we know”)

Phase I–Unconscious Incompetence

The individual is not aware of a particular skill or behavior that they are deficient in because they are also unaware of the reasons for it. Another term for this is ignorant bliss. It’s normal for people in this stage to deny the usefulness of the particular skill since, at this point, both the skill and it’s application is out of their realm of comprehension. Sometimes we can go through life blissfully ignorant about a deficiency because we ourselves are not aware it even exists until someone points it out.

Phase II–Conscious Incompetence

In this phase, the individual becomes aware of the specific skill that must be learned. Any outside source, and sometimes our own trials and errors can bring about this awareness. Merely knowing that the behavior or skill exists does not mean that the individual is proficient at performing it however. The person will fumble about and realize that they have much practice in order to master the new skill. Many mistakes are made in this phase as the person attempts to learn the new skill through progressive trial and errors. Dedicated practice is crucial if the person wants to advance to the next stage of learning.

Phase III–Conscious Competence

After enough training and repetitions, the individual is able to execute the skill or behavior with a level of proficiency at will. This behavior does not come automatically however. The person still needs to be concentrating on performing the specific behavior in order to execute it with proficiency. The skill does not happen naturally yet. At this point, the person probably can’t articulate the skill well enough to train others in its application. Additional exposure, repetition and practice are necessary to advance to the final stage of learning.

Phase IV–Unconscious Competence

At this stage, the skill is automatic and comes naturally without any conscious thought. At this point, the skill is so practiced that it enters the subconscious mind and requires no mental focus to execute it with proficiency. The skill becomes as second-nature as walking and the person will know it so well that they can articulate it to others. Continual maintenance is often required to stay in phase IV; otherwise the individual might experience a regression back to Phase III.

Practical Analogy

We can better envision these four stages if we use them in a practical application. For this example, we will use the skill of driving a car to illustrate the progression through these four phases:

Unconscious incompetence = Non-Driver. Little 10 year old Timmy is unaware about the skill of driving a car because his parents drive him everywhere and that is how he gets around, so he does not know that there is skill behind driving a car. The skill of driving a car is not a part of Timmy’s life, so he is not worried about not having a competency in it.

Conscious Incompetence = Student Driver. Little Timmy is a teenager with high-hopes of taking his high school sweetheart out in his new car….But first he needs to get his driver’s license. He gets behind the wheel of his father’s car parked in the drive way, starts it up…and instead of going forward, he accidentally puts it in reverse and knocks over the trashcan behind it. “Not as easy as it looks,” Timmy says to himself. “I’m going to have to practice.” Timmy at this point is consciously aware that he is an unskilled driver. This is a good motivating force to practice.

Conscious Competence = Passed Driving Test. With sweaty palms and an emotionless Department of Motor Vehicles Official in the passenger seat next to him, Timmy takes his driving exam. Luckily, his countless hours of driver’s training paid off because he passes the exam. Timmy is a competent driver, but he must consciously focus on his training and lessons in order to apply them when he is driving.

Unconscious Competence = Cell phone Driving. Timmy grew up and became an important businessman and is driving his new BMW to his office. Always the road multi-tasker, Timmy is talking on his cell phone with one hand, jotting down notes with the other hand, and taking intermittent bites of a sandwich, all while driving in stop and go traffic. Timmy’s has practiced driving enough to the point where he does not have to focus on driving anymore to perform that skill with proficiency…even if he knows that he should to avoid accidents.

© Copyright 2006 by Tristan Loo.