Do you know what you don't know?
When we find that we don't know something important, we're often motivated to learn more. However if we're blissfully unaware of our ignorance, there's little we can do about it.
One of the first steps on the journey to acquiring new skills is therefore to be aware of what you don't know. This discovery can be uncomfortable, as can be the experience of not being very good at what you're trying to do (as you won't be, when you first start to learn.)
The Conscious Competence Ladder is a popular and intuitive approach (attributed to many different possible originators) that helps us manage our own emotions during a sometimes dispiriting learning process. More than this, it helps us to be more in touch with the emotions of the people we are teaching, so we can better coach them through the learning process.
According to this approach, consciousness is the first step towards gaining knowledge. To learn new skills and to gain knowledge you need to be conscious of what you do and do not know.
Next, skills, or competence, is your ability to do things. You may be highly competent in one area, but have no skill in another. Your skill level will depend on the task or job at hand.
The idea is that as you build expertise in a new area, you move from "unconsciously unskilled" to "consciously unskilled" and then to "consciously skilled", finally reaching "unconsciously skilled." These are explained below, and this "ladder" of learning is shown in figure 1.
At this level you are blissfully ignorant: You have a complete lack of knowledge and skills in the subject in question. On top of this, you are unaware of this lack of skill, and your confidence may therefore far exceed your abilities.
At this level you find that there are skills you need to learn, and you may be shocked to discover that there are others who are much more competent than you. As you realize that your ability is limited, your confidence drops. You go through an uncomfortable period as you learn these new skills when others are much more competent and successful than you are.
At this level you acquire the new skills and knowledge. You put your learning into practice and you gain confidence in carrying out the tasks or jobs involved. You are aware of your new skills and work on refining them.
You are still concentrating on the performance of these activities, but as you get ever-more practice and experience, these become increasingly automatic.
At this level your new skills become habits, and you perform the task without conscious effort and with automatic ease. This is the peak of your confidence and ability.
Some people prefer to think of this as a matrix (hence "Conscious Competence Matrix" or "Learning Matrix") with Unskilled/Skilled or Incompetent/Competent on the horizontal axis, and Unconscious/Conscious on the vertical axis.
Use the approach you prefer.
The Conscious Competence Ladder helps us in two ways: It gives us reassurance when we need it, and it helps us coach others through a sometimes difficult learning process.
During the Consciously Unskilled phase, we have the reassurance that while things are difficult and frustrating right now, things will get much better in the future. And when we're at the stage of Unconsciously Skilled, the model reminds us to value the skills we have so painstakingly acquired.
As an approach to coaching others, it reminds us that people may be moving through these steps as they learn the new skills we're trying to teach them:
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