The Four-Stage Learning Model for Skill Acquisition

Jason Kapnick, Co-Founder of Catalyst SPORT

If you and I have worked together, either in Semi-Private Training, or Personal Training, you’ve probably heard me refer to the “Four-Stage Learning Model” that takes us from unconscious incompetence to unconscious competence.

Whether it’s how to throw a jab in boxing, butcher a chicken, or perform a proper hip hinge, skill acquisition typically goes through four phases. Being aware of these four stages will allow you to better assess where you are in your journey, and adjust accordingly to maximize progress. This blog post will also give you some ideas and recommendations for each stage.

First, the model itself:

Along the horizontal axis we have awareness (knowing what's going on) vs. unconsciousness (not thinking about it). On the vertical axis we have competence (being able to do) vs. incompetence (not being able to do).

The idea is that we start in Quadrant IV – “we don’t know what we don’t know.” At this stage, we have little or no competency in the skill, and we’re not even aware that we lack the skill.

Once we’ve become aware of the skill, and can accurately assess our ability, we’re able to learn and acquire proficiency.

Ultimately, we want to end up in Quadrant II – we’re able to perform the skill with a high degree of competency, and we don’t even need to really think about the skill anymore.

 

Stage IV. Unconscious Incompetence

At this stage, we lack skill and aren’t even aware of it. “We don’t know what we don’t know.”  We’ll use the example of a hip hinge, which is a safe and effective way to pick up an object from about knee height. It involves immobilizing the spine, and moving from the hips and legs.

Oftentimes, clients who are new to Catalyst are unable to effectively perform this movement pattern, and moreover, they didn’t even realize this pattern existed. They’ve picked up heavy luggage, boxes, etc., without ever giving a thought to how they’re going about this task. Perhaps they have lower back pain because of this improper technique, perhaps not.

Recommendations: Moving out of Stage IV is as simple as becoming aware of the problem. This is where having a coach or some other form of external feedback can be so valuable. Since we “don’t know what we don’t know” (unknown unknowns), it can be tremendously useful to have a system of support and feedback to help.

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Quadrants III & I – Conscious Incompetence and Conscious Competence

Quadrants I and III are where much of the magic really happens. This is where we go from unskilled to skilled. Now that we’re aware of the skill and our own level of competence, we can gather information, practice the skill, try different strategies, and engage in active learning. Oftentimes, this is where people can get discouraged. “I’m bad at this and I didn’t even realize until just now” is a common lament for those who have just entered Quadrant III. Yes, but now you have an opportunity to improve.

As we enter Quadrant I, we’ve gained competency at the task, but still must remain conscious and aware of our performance. At this stage, we have not yet developed “auto-pilot,” and performing the task properly requires concentration and focus.

To continue the example of the hip hinge, this is where we might introduce an exercise such as the kettlebell deadlift.

Recommendations: The key to progress in these stages is to stay “on the edge of our ability level.” We want to find tasks that we can complete, but that require concentration, effort, and/or problem solving to be successful. This gives us a chance to manage errors, and determine the optimal strategy for accomplishing the task.

A quick note: skill acquisition and exercise may or may not be the same, and we want to be sure that the errors we are managing are not potentially injurious. To use the example of the hip hinge—it’s probably acceptable to be challenged by technique with a 12kg kettlebell as we learn to hip hinge properly. It’s unlikely that minor errors will cause harm. However, it’s probably not acceptable to be struggling with technique with a 225lb barbell, because now errors can have more severe consequences.

Quadrant II – Unconscious Competence

When you brushed your teeth this morning, did you think about the way you held the toothbrush? Did you consider the angle of your hand and the technique of your brush stroke? Of course not. You are unconsciously competent in the (admittedly simple) task of tooth brushing.

Once we can take a task and “stuff in the subconscious” as renowned rehabilitative chiropractor Dr. Craig Liebenson puts it, we’re able to integrate this skill into more complex activities. For example, a novice boxer must learn to throw a proper jab, going through the above phases. However, an experienced boxer doesn’t need to think about the technique of the jab, and now he can use the jab to control distance, establish timing, and set up combinations of punches.

Recommendations: Repetition is the mother of skill, and only through practice are we able to develop “auto-pilot” for a given task. Integrating the simpler task into more complex tasks can be an effective way to achieve mastery and continue our development.

A note of caution: once we enter Quadrant II, learning slows down. We should be careful to avoid the “ok plateau,” where our skills are good enough (“ok”), but since they are on auto-pilot, they stop improving (“plateau”). For example, most people spend hours per day at the computer typing, but never improve their typing speed. They’ve achieved unconscious competence, and learning has slowed. To resume learning, we need to bring the skill back to Quadrants I & III, bringing mindfulness back to the task and spending time on the edge of our ability level. In the example of typing, this can be as simple as trying to type 10% faster than usual.

Conclusion

For most skills that we learn, we go through four phases, from unconscious incompetence to unconscious competence. Being aware of this progression, and understanding each phase, can help us to acquire skills more quickly and more effectively.

 

 




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