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Four Stages of Learning

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John Beilein is the head coach for men’s basketball at the University of Michigan. Beilein’s won over 700 games in his coaching career.

When a freshman joins his team, Beilein shares how they get up to speed. He uses a framework.

The four stages of learning:

While I’m not a collegiate freshman trying to learn basketball, I’ve found this framework really useful in my own learning too.

UNconsciously INcompetent

This is the first stage of learning. You don’t even know what you’re doing. You’re doing things, and you don’t even know if it’s wrong.

An example in my own life is I started a new job at the beginning of this year (2019). I need to learn the product, the team, the customer, and much more.

When answering a customer’s question for the first time, I do my best to troubleshoot. So I search around various resources, and kind of end up in no man’s land. Because I don’t even know what to search. I don’t even know how to describe it.

It’s like if you asked your dog to shake your hand for the first time. The dog has no idea what it means yet.

Consciously INcompetent

The second stage of learning is you’re aware of what you’re doing is wrong. This is a huge step. It means you’re listening and slowly beginning to understand the correct or right habits to learn a skill/task.

For example, when I started practicing yoga, I began to pick up on proper alignment with my body in certain poses. In twisted or revolved triangle pose, your hips need to be aligned in order to access the pose.

When I first tried the twist, I kept falling over. I had no balance. And I knew that it was wrong, just not quite sure how to fix it.

Once the teacher told me to put my legs on railroad tracks or spread them out more, I gained more balance and I was able to access the twist.

So now your dog probably knows if it lifts a paw, it gets a treat. And if the dog doesn’t lift a paw, no treat.

Consciously Competent

The third stage of learning is when you begin to know what you’re doing, but it just takes you time to do it. You’re starting to develop the habits. You just have to think about the steps a lot. Your experience is still a bit green.

A good example is if you asked a professional chef and I to cook the same meal. I’m sure I can follow the recipe or instructions, and understand how to avoid burning food, but it’s going to take me a hell of a lot more effort to do it. Plus, the quality is going to be wildly different.

Because a professional chef is comfortable, and has the practice that builds confidence to do it without thinking so much.

Your dog might be a bit reluctant to lift a paw, but its slowly learning how to do it.

UNconsciously Competent

The final stage of learning is you know exactly what to do without even thinking about it. Now, it’s second nature. Natural. You have confidence and you’re habits are solid.

If you’ve worked the same job for 30 plus years, you’re likely unconsciously competent at several tasks. Because you’ve had a ton of exposure to the right and the wrong way of doing things. You’ve had the right feedback, and you know what works and what doesn’t.

Someone completing a daily commute to work for the 500th time versus the first time is going to be far more successful. Because there is no substitute for exposure.

And by now your dog knows when you say, Shake, it lifts a paw.

No matter what you’re learning, whether basketball or teaching an old dog new tricks, this framework is useful.


Find me on Twitter @thischrisgallo or GitHub @gallochris or Instagram @heygallo.