I’ve come across a model of learning in the last year that I’ve found quite useful when thinking about the different things I’ve been learning of late – more bellydance, yoga and counselling skills. It’s been buzzing around my head of late so I thought it’d be interesting to share.

It is commonly known as the Four Stages of Learning or Conscious Competence model. It’s origins are unclear – some claim is was Maslow (better known for his Hierarchy of Needs model) other have suggested it was a training company, Gordon Training International, that coined it. The first stage in the model sees the student in a state of unconscious incompetence – they don’t know that they don’t know. This moves to conscious incompetence as they start to think about their need to learn – they now know that they don’t know (and how disheartening is that moment when you realise how vast the gap in your knowledge/skill is?!?). Over the course of their training/learning they achieve conscious competence – they know that they know and consciously think through what they’re doing. Eventually, by this model, they move to unconscious competence; they don’t know what they know, their knowledge/skills become second nature to them.

Here’s a handy diagram borrowed from another blog (click to visit):

I think this is a fairly useful, straightforward model that describes a learning cycle applicable to many fields (and certainly applicable to what I’ve been learning lately). Where I think it reaches is limits is when thinking about when you reach a level of competency where you are able to teach what you know. What I mean by this is the competency that differentiates an English as an Additional Language (EAL) teacher from a native English speaker. Both are unconsciously competent with the use of the English language but the latter may struggle to explain and teach the skill. In fact, having to think through and explain something you know well can be quite disruptive to your ability to do that thing – I have a few memories of standing in front of students of both Physics and bellydancing and getting myself all muddled up trying to explain something I hadn’t thought through well enough in advance (happily the more teaching experience I’ve had the less this has happened!). Dave Mearns, a leading figure within person-centred counselling, describes the interaction between his knowledge and his ability to pass this on: "…I believe I am much poorer as a facilitator now than 15 years ago. Paradoxically one of the factors which has contributed to this has been the growth in my understanding of person-centred counselling…" (Page 59, Person-Centred Counselling Training by Dave Mearns, 1997).

It’s a complex relationship between subject knowledge and the ability to teach. I think describing it is not a straightforward task as it varies between different people and within different subject areas. Dave Mearns has found increased subject knowledge a hindrance for him in his field, I have found it inspirational, that it can drive my desire to teach – and I believe the more energy you have for teaching, the more passion you have for your subject, the more inspirational you are as a teacher.

If you’re interested in learning more about this model, and it’s disputed origins, this article is quite interesting (even if the webpage is a little unattractive to read). And if you have thoughts to share on any of this please feel free to add them below.