Four stages of competence

August 11, 2020

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Experts are not so valuable anymore, it would appear. One wonders why. Psychology is predominently a discipline of heuristics, applied to answer questions or solve problems of behaviour. This particular heuristic describes well the process of learning, as well what kinds of people don't value expertise and why.


Psychology is predominently a discipline of heuristics, applied to answer questions or solve problems of behaviour. In many cases, for the purpose of easy application, the simpler ones are better. More scope for error, but also more interpretable.

A very simple model of learning with ambiguous origins is one of these. It appears to have emerged sometime around the 1970s and was quickly and erroneously attributed to Abraham Maslow, probably because it is also often stylised as a pyramid. But since I've come across this model in both counselling psychology and management consulting, it seems worth noting. Especially because it's a useful shorthand to describe many aspects of learning.

It describes four progressive stages:

1. Unconscious incompetence

We need to be aware of something, or value it, before we can learn it.

To quote Joe Flower via Wikipedia:

The individual does not understand or know how to do something and does not necessarily recognize the deficit. They may deny the usefulness of the skill. The individual must recognize their own incompetence, and the value of the new skill, before moving on to the next stage. The length of time an individual spends in this stage depends on the strength of the stimulus to learn.

Flower notes that the 'strength of the stimulus' is important for learning, which we know to be true from learning theory or interruption theory. But we might also have our attention drawn to it by others. This is one of the roles of social learning. Indeed, this is one of the obstacles to learning addressed by Lev Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development: the stage of learning we are stuck in without help. If no one tells us we need to know, we don't value knowing.

From a more philosophical perspective, in the 'hero's journey' monomyth popularised by Joseph Campbell, this stage constitutes the call to adventure and the refusal of the call.

In all cases, this stage contributes both to our happiness (what we don't know can't hurt us), but is also very typically detrimental. Consider for example the Dunning-Krueger effect. The less we know or care about a topic area, the more likely we are to discount the perspective of experts and consider ourselves knowledgeable. This is why platitudes both hurt and help.

Or consider the animosity of philosophers to the ignorance of the mob. Plato, and possibly Socrates, for example excoriated the democracy of Athenian times because their ignorance made them dangerous. So too did Machiavelli and Hobbes derogate the ignorant masses. Blissful, but dangerous.

2. Conscious incompetence

However, once we are aware, the learning process can begin.

Again, we paraphrase Joe Flower:

Though the individual does not understand or know how to do something, they recognize the deficit, as well as the value of a new skill in addressing the deficit. The making of mistakes can be integral to the learning process at this stage.

This again is a stage encompassed in Vygotsky's ZPD. We might be motivated to learn, but without the means to do so. Once we have the means, from others or by circumstance (or, in our stories, supernaturally), we can begin to take note of the structure of the problem and build skills to address it. This is where the bulk of learning theory sits, with emphasis on operant learning, or learning the consequences of our behaviours.

For the hero, most of the journey happens here. From the time the hero crosses the threshold until the mastering of both the old and the new world,

3. Conscious competence

Eventually, we have mastered the skill. But we are not practiced.

Flower comments:

The individual understands or knows how to do something. However, demonstrating the skill or knowledge requires concentration. It may be broken down into steps, and there is heavy conscious involvement in executing the new skill.

Here the hero is finally the master of two worlds. But not without cost. We still must put in effort.

While Bloom's taxonomy doesn't necessarily describe stages of learning, so much as goals of learning, we see overlap here when students are "organizing": able to put together the new skills with old skills; able "synthesize" and "evaluate".

For many of our skills, this is where our progress will die. We have only so much time to devote to learning a new language or taking up a new sport.

Returning to the Dunning-Kruger effect, those with conscious competence now have a sense of the depths to which this skill or knowledgebase might go. Here, we are also less likely to value experts, not because we are ignorant, but because we can evaluate who truly is an expert.

4. Unconscious competence

Flower put it:

The individual has had so much practice with a skill that it has become "second nature" and can be performed easily. As a result, the skill can be performed while executing another task. The individual may be able to teach it to others, depending upon how and when it was learned.

All learning eventually becomes automatic, when practiced sufficiently. We might view this as the end result of the debatable 10,000 hour rule popularised by Malcolm Gladwell from Anders Ericsson's less popular, but rather more thoughtful work on deliberate practice.

This automation process is in fact a large role of the white matter in the brain. Grey matter describes the actual brain cells, sending information from one to another. As we practice, the connections between the cells involved get paved over, or insulated, with myelin which both speeds up processing and stops those cells from being assigned to other things (i.e. plasticity).

'Choking' is an example of this automation process breaking down: an athlete seizes up and inexplicably can't perform or a musician forgets the notes to a familiar song. Here the person has tried to perform, but since the actions have been automated, trying is preventing them from doing so.

The hero's journey, starts to break down here, but maybe we could view it as a cycle. At some point we must all give back, and here we have the opportunity to become the next hero's "magical mentor". As Malcolm X said:

There was a time when you didn't know what you know today.

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