Four Stages of Learning

Recently, I finished reading The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control Over Their Lives. One of the (many) ideas that has stuck with me from this book is the stages of learning a new skill.

We’ll quickly take a look at the four stages of learning and then look at each individually. Lastly, we’ll see why understanding these developmental stages of learning are helpful when working with students who are in the first two stages.

The four stages

  1. Unconsciously unskilled
  2. Consciously unskilled
  3. Consciously skilled
  4. Unconsciously skilled

A closer look

Stage One – Unconsciously Unskilled

In this stage, you are unaware of your inability to accomplish a task. Perhaps you’ve never attempted the task before and/or are full of a false sense of your own ability. Put quite simply, you don’t yet know that you don’t know.

What this might look like for student: A false sense of understanding a concept introduced in class because “I already know how to do that” or “My teacher taught this last year.” The student might check out or skip studying for a test because they feel there’s no need to do so.

Stage Two – Consciously Unskilled

Eventually, we find out we know less that we had assumed. In this second stage, you become aware of your lack of skill either through your own observation or someone else’s, perhaps a caring adult or teacher. To better yourself and acquire the skill, you initiate some form of personal or professional development, be it through reading a book, watching YouTube tutorials, taking a class, or seeking some other form of instruction, while continuously practicing the skill. Over time and through repeated, regular, and intentional practice, you progress to stage three.

What this might look like for a student: Failing the assessment and reaching out (or being reached out to) for help. Perhaps the student meets with a teacher or tutor before or after class, during recess, etc. to better understand a topic. The student intentionally spends time to better understand the concept or accomplish the task, with the goal of reaching a greater level of autonomy.

Stage Three – Consciously Skilled

This is the stage everyone hopes to reach within a reasonable amount of time, but it may take longer to reach this stage than desired for some. Through instruction and repeated practice over time, competency has developed, and a skill has been acquired, although it may be awkwardly or clumsily carried out at times. While you can accomplish a task at this stage without assistance, the application of the new skill will take varying levels of applied concentration and effort.

What this might look like for a student: When presented with a task, the student is able to complete it without assistance, and for the most part, a correct response or desirable outcome is achieved. On a standards-based report card or rubric, you might expect to see that the student “meets standard” or scores a three on a four-point scale (four being exceeding standard).

Stage Four – Unconsciously Skilled

This is the stage that the masters of their craft have reached. Think about Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, and Muhammad Ali in their prime. Watching any of these players on the court, rink, or in the ring, they have a sort of flow to their movements­­­—they are in complete control. They’ve mastered their respective skills to the point that they don’t need stop to think about what to do and it seems to come to them naturally.

What this might look like for a student: Procedural fluency in math (confidently executing a sequence of steps to solve a problem with minimal hesitation) or entering a state of flow in writing or creating. What was once effortful has now, through repeated and purposeful practice over time, become effortless and perhaps even enjoyable. You might expect to see students at this stage scoring threes and fours on a four-point rubric.

Some things to keep in mind

Understanding this progression of skill acquisition is helpful for teachers and other well-meaning adults when attempting to assist a student who is either newer to a concept or skill, or who seems to be stuck. At times, it can be difficult for those at stage four (often adults, far removed from being instructed as students) to remember the time, effort, and struggles they went through themselves when introduced to the same concept or skill.

As a teacher and parent, I know how much discomfort there is when someone you care about and are heavily invested in, struggles. There might be a temptation to introduce cute tricks, gimmicks, and shortcuts when you encounter a student who seems to be floundering in stage two, but shortcuts at this stage rob students of vital reasoning and sense-making, which will only lead to future confusion and frustration when more advanced skills that require deep understanding of underlying concepts are introduced.

I can’t overemphasize this next point enough: please, do not force a student to receive assistance, even if they are stuck. If a student doesn’t want to learn, forcing them to receive help from a teacher or making them meet with a tutor will only lead to increased resistance and frustration, while also wasting time and possibly their parents’ money. I’ve experienced this too many times in the classroom and while tutoring students over the years. While students may need to be made aware of their options for receiving assistance, no one is able to make a child learn if they resist it. Instead of forcing or coercing the student, let them know that you are available to work with them or that you will help them find someone else who will, but that ultimately, they are responsible for their own learning. Find out what’s keeping the student stuck in that particular stage and address it.

In summary, there are a few stages of learning new concepts or skills, and everyone has to progress through the stages at their own pace. Remember that each person will progress through these stages at their own pace, and don’t attempt to shortcut their learning when they seem stuck. Instead, through careful observation and interactions with individual students, discover what misconceptions may be keeping them from progressing in their learning, and then shift focus to those underlying concepts or skills, helping students progress in their understanding.

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About the Author: Shawn Seeley

Father, husband, teacher, retired Marine.

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