Learning to Learn, from Unconscious to Conscious

I believe that to survive and prosper we need to learn faster and to teach better.


Did you know that your learning follows a path? Firstly you don’t know what your don’t know, which is a state I like to call “blissful ignorance.” On the learning path this is known as unconscious incompetence.

When you learn about something new you first enter a stage of knowing what you don’t know or can’t yet do;  this is known as conscious incompetence. This stage can be uncomfortable for adult learners as they feel awkward and self-conscious as they start practicing the skill. Many people have given up at this stage, think of those guitar lessons or yoga classes that you so eagerly signed up for. If the goal is important enough we push through the discomfort of not knowing and move to the next level, if you have learned to drive a car or use a piece of new software you know what I mean.

With practice comes conscious competence – you know how to do the skill although you might still need to pay some attention to the task. Think about when you just passed your driving test or learned how to ride a bike – you could do it but you were still a bit wobbly.

The next stage is unconscious competence where you can complete the  task automatically. If you can touch type your fingers know where the ‘Z’ key is without you even thinking. Unfortunately many people drive this way as they talk on their mobile phones and eat fast food whilst navigating the roads! Most people stop learning at this level as the amount of practice to achieve the next level of mastery does not seem worth the effort.

Finally there is consciousness of your unconscious competence – this is a high level of awareness of what you know and how you know it. At this level of learning the master of his or her craft seeks to find the fine distinctions that take knowledge or skills to new levels or into new contexts.  Many of us have experienced a teacher who knew thier subject (unconsious competence) but could not really teach it because they lacked a high level of awareness of how they do what they do.

To be an effective leader, teacher, coach or mentor we must understand the learning path and help our staff or students navigate it. We must remember the challenges we had in learning and share how we overcame these obstacles. It is too easy to become frustrated when it takes someone a while to get what we think is easy but we have usually forgotten to help them learn rather than just telling them.

Most importantly if you are stuck at conscious incompetence – ask for help, find a coach or someone who has mastered this before and ask them how they learned to learn the skill.

Andrew Bryant


    1. says

      I know someone in a leadership position who spent a year in an education graduate program. He will tell you that what he gathered about how people learn has been a tremendous asset to him as both a manager and a leader. Sometimes the most important academic lessons aren’t found in an MBA program.

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