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William Shakespeare famously compared the stages of learning to acts performed in the theatre of life.
For example, in As You Like It, the second stage involves going to school, whether the child likes it or not.
But what are the four levels of learning we use today?
I’m talking about stages like:
- Concrete experience
- Reflective thinking
- Abstract thinking
- Personal experimentation
That’s one model given by Kolb in Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development.
Is this really the best way to describe the stages of the learning process?
Or should we look to other models that describe the various levels of learning we go through? Ones that include the notion of “unconscious competence”?
On this page, we’re taking a deep dive into the topic.
What Are The Four Stages Of Learning?
As mentioned above, Kolb presents a version of the four levels that involve processing at concrete, abstract and reflective levels of thinking.
Usually, however, people are looking for the four levels of competence. These originally come from Martin M. Broadwell who intended them for teachers in need of a model for their students.
As a learner, you can also use these levels of learning to help navigate your way through complex topics. Following this model can also help ensure you meet your cognitive needs in a structured manner as you go about your learning.
Let’s have a look at each level in detail.
Have you ever started learning something you’re basically familiar with only to realize how little you know about the topic?
I’ve had this with music. Although I’ve played in bands for decades and toured the world, when I hang out with much better musicians, I realize how little I know. My skills lead to all kinds of incorrect intuitions as I play simply because I don’t know the key signatures as well as some of the trained jazz musicians I know.
Still, I sometimes find myself trying to play in ways I don’t understand, only to hit notes that don’t sound great. It doesn’t happen to me anymore, but when it did, it was like I was suffering the musical version of the Dunning-Kruger Effect.
This point is important to understand. You don’t have to be completely unfamiliar with a topic to experience unconscious incompetence.
Captain Edward J. Smith provides one of the most famous examples. As the captain of the Titanic, he certainly knew a thing or two about sailing boats.
But that didn’t stop Captain Smith from following the wrong intuitions. Although he received multiple warnings about the dangers ahead, he still failed to take action and the Titanic wound up sinking.
I’ve become much more modest over the years in music, and am now much more conscious of my incompetence with certain genres of music.
To become more competent, I study the specific areas where I’m weak and patch in deliberate practice to turn incompetence into skill.
A more famous example of conscious incompetence is someone like Elon Musk using first principles to figure out what he doesn’t know. Then, by adding knowledge and competence, he was able to purchase various companies and improve them.
Of course, the court is still out on whether or not his conscious incompetence about Twitter will improve.
At this level of knowledge, you’re in the sweet spot.
You can think about people like Stevie Wonder. Many people think he’s a musical genius – including me.
Although blind from birth, he learned not only how to play piano and sing, he also learned how to compose and perform.
You might think of these as one task, but they’re actually different things.
For example, I’m consciously competent when it comes to playing concerts with bands in my preferred genre. I can also compose relatively well and even sing to a certain degree.
But I’ve never developed conscious competence as a studio musician.
This is not uncommon. Many of your favorite bands aren’t actually playing on the albums you buy. Their record companies have hired consciously competent musicians, leaving them to do what they do best: perform.
Then there are musicians who don’t even write their own songs, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Many creative industries rely on detailed knowledge of conscious competence. That way, each person can focus on just their part and shine.
At this level of competence, the individual barely has to think about what they’re doing.
Shakespeare, for example, was thought to be able to run circles around other playwrights when it came to writing incredibly powerful plots and individual lines of dialogue.
Or you can think about virtuoso musicians. They don’t even need to see a score or rehearse. They just hop on stage with musicians they’ve never met and produce pure musical magic.
Theoretically, they have highly trained procedural memory skills.
Why You Might Have Trouble Learning New Information Quickly
The answer is simple:
Many people put the cart ahead of the horse.
I once heard musician Joe Satriani answer a guitar student’s objection that they did not know what to learn next to overcome a plateau. They were trying to do advance soloing but kept getting stuck.
Satriani asked if they knew the name of every note on the fretboard. The person did not.
“Then you do know what you need to learn next,” Satriani insisted.
He wasn’t particularly patient in his response and it was partly because the student clearly had Dunning-Kruger Effect. (This happens when people are unaware of how little they know about something, but nonetheless suffer memory biases that make them think they do.)
So what’s the solution:
Always analyze what you want to learn, chunk it down, and start with beginner’s mind.
Being humble, developing foundational knowledge and not being afraid to repeat certain levels of knowledge is almost always the key.
How to Remember the Stages of Knowledge
As we’ve seen, there’s more than one “four levels of learning” model out there.
So if you want to be able to whip out the stages of learning process from any source you’ve found interesting or useful, here’s what I suggest:
Develop unconscious competence with memory techniques.
They will help you rapidly absorb lists like these and add on examples like the ones we’ve discussed today with everyone from captains to musicians.
How to get started?
I share the best ways I’m aware of in my free memory improvement course:
These ancient memory techniques are still in use today for one simple reason:
Our ancestors found them helpful when it comes to moving through a lot more than the four levels of learning.
We’ve been using them to help us learn languages and every topic you can imagine.
All you have to do is avoid the perils of unconscious incompetence and they will you avoid learning struggles.
So what do you say?
Are you ready to learn with greater competence?
Make it happen!