Awareness of the 4 Stages of Learning 

By Lynn Seiser, M.A.


How do we learn? There are many theories about how one learns something. Sometimes an experience is so intense that we learn it the first time. Usually, that is not the case. Usually it takes time to learn. If we are aware of the stages of learning, we can speed up the process. I personally like the four stages of learning model. We tend to go from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence to conscious competence to unconscious competence. What does that mean? How can we apply it to learning awareness?

The first stage, unconscious incompetence, means it doesn't work but you don't know it. Personally, we are all aware of people who consistently fail. Unfortunately, they are unaware of themselves. Perhaps they are watching us with the same observation, wondering when we are going to wake up. One definition of insanity is "doing the same thing repeatedly expecting a different result." It usually does not work. There is an old saying, "if you keep doing what you have always done, you will get what you always got." Many of us do not look to see if what we are doing works. Two old expressions, "ignorance is bliss" and "what you do not know will not hurt you", are not true. Being unconsciously incompetent means we will never know that what we are doing does not work. There is no awareness. Even if we are not aware of it, others are. Perhaps, we could just ask them and instead of being defensive, listen to what they say. It just may be true, even if we are not aware or conscious of it ourselves.

The second stage, conscious incompetence, means it does not work, but at least you know it. There is another old expression; "the truth will set you free". Once out of the denial of unconscious incompetence, we are faced with the awareness of what we are doing does not work. Perhaps it never really did. If it never did, and does not now, then it probably never will. So, how much time and effort have we wasted? It is hard to tell. If we spend enough time thinking about it, we can make ourselves very guilty, depressed, or just feel foolish. The first step in recovery is to admit that our lives have become uncontrollable and unmanageable. Many people get stuck here. I have seen many people once they know it does not work, not know what to do next.

The third stage, conscious competence, means it works but you have to pay attention to it. So how do we find out what to do? Look around you, become aware of all the resources that you may never knew existed. An old rule of thumb is to find someone who has, or can do, what you want. Then, ask them how to do it. Some people call this modeling or imitation. Then do it. I am a fan of a shoe's marketing slogan, "Just Do It". In this stage, realistic repetition makes the difference. Each of us has our own threshold of how often we need to repeat something before it begins to make sense. If we stop short of that threshold, we never get to claim the new skill. This is the practice stage. Many people resist this stage by thinking it just is not them. At one time, who they are now was not either. Anything we repeat often enough incorporates into our identity. Some say it take twenty-one days to make or break a habit. Some of us do it sooner, some later. Being aware of our conscious competence allows us to begin to achieve results we never knew possible.

The fourth stage, unconscious competence, means it works and it works all by itself. Think back to a time in your life when you did something a certain way that just did not work. Perhaps you used to spell a certain word wrong. Perhaps a kind and loving teacher or parent made you write that word repeatedly. They kept making you do that until you got it right. In addition, you hated them for it. You did not understand why they did that to you. However, ever since than, you have spelled it right. Now you know who to thank and why they did that. We are the sum total products of our experiences. What we experience, we believe. What we experience repeatedly, we really believe in. We believe in it enough that we no longer question or have to think about it. That is unconscious competence. We do it and it works without our awareness.

I wonder how long it will take until we become aware that yelling, arguments, intimidation, and violence do not work in the end. I wonder what will happen when we start to practice conscious compassion. I wonder, when we become aware that we all win or we all lose, will we consciously practice mutually beneficial skills? I wonder how long it will take until we became aware of what works and what does not. What will happen when we became even more aware of the inter-dependency we all share with the environment? There is only one way to find out.

Thanks for listening and sharing the learning the journey offers, whether we are aware of it or not.Lynn Seiser, PhD, MFCC, is an internationally respected psychotherapist, consultant, speaker and writer with more than twenty years of direct clinical experience in recovery counseling for offenders and victims of violence, trauma and abuse. He is also known for his work in "holistic" recovery from addictions and his emphasis on "healthy" relationships. He offers 11 web pages at   and can be e-mailed at To discuss the benefits of his services, to make a referral, or to make an appointment, contact him at 550 Pacific Coast Hwy., #203, Seal Beach, CA 90740 or call (562) 799-1371.

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