4 Stages of Learning

4 Stages of Learning

There are four stages of learning that everyone transitions through when learning a new physical skill. Regardless of what the skill is, the stages are always the same.

As a teacher I recognise these four stages and see people transition through them everyday. I have been teaching dance for over ten years and I have never come across a student I couldn’t help to become a great dancer as long as they can

  • stay motivated

  • practise

  • trust the processes we use

  • understand and embrace the four stages of learning

By understanding and recognising them yourself it makes the process of learning a new skill much more enjoyable and relaxing, hence I thought I would share them with you.

Stage 1: Unconscious Incompetence

The individual does not know how to do something but is unaware that they don’t know how to do it. In some cases they may deny or downplay the usefulness/importance of the skill. They must first recognise their own incompetence as well as the value of gaining the new skill if they are to move to the next stage: conscious incompetence.

The length of time someone spends in this initial stage depends on the strength of the stimulus to learn.

Dancing Stage 1: The individual has witnessed others partner dancing on TV or in public but is yet to try it for themselves. They may be researching and investigating different dance studios and places to dance but are yet to walk through the door.

Stage 2: Conscious Incompetence

During the stage of conscious incompetence the individual does not understand or know how to do something, they recognise the deficit as well as the value or importance of the new skill. This is by far the most difficult stage, where learning begins and people are most harsh on themselves. Unfortunately this is the stage where most people give up.

Dancing Stage 2: So you’ve finally taken the plunge and gone along to your local dance studio to give dancing a try. You’re 4 or 5 lessons in and you still don’t feel smooth like the people you have seen on TV. You are still having to concentrate on every single step and you often get steps and dances mixed up. It is important at this stage to stay motivated and realise that this is a normal part of the process and that the next stage is just around the corner! Don’t give up!

Stage 3: Conscious Competence

Now you know how to do something, however, demonstrating the skill still requires concentration. There is heavy conscious involvement in executing the new skill. This stage of learning is much easier than the second stage, but it is still a bit uncomfortable and self-conscious.

Dancing in stage 3: This is where people start to enjoy their dancing and are motivated by the progress they can see in themselves. Step patterns and techniques become easier to understand even if they are still a little tricky to execute.

Stage 4: Unconscious Competence

The individual has had so much practice that the skill has become ‘second nature’ and can be performed easily. As a result, it is possible to perform the skill whilst executing another task, like being on the phone! The individual may be even able to successfully teach it to others, depending on how and when it was taught.

Dancing at stage 4: Congratulations, you’ve made it! Your dancing is feeling smooth and comfortable. You can even dance and sing or talk at the same time. Step patterns are threading together nicely and you can dance with ease at any social event. What a beautiful stage this is. This is the stage where you can really start to specialise in a particular style you love or take on specialty dances such as samba, Viennese waltz or Argentine tango.

Abraham Maslow recounted his experience of learning to drive and related it to the four stages.

“As a child I first thought that all I needed to do was sit behind the wheel and steer and use the pedals. This was the happy stage of unconscious incompetence.

When I began learning to drive, I realised there was a whole lot more to it, and I became a little daunted. This was the stage of conscious incompetence. There were so many different things to do and think about, literally hundreds of new behaviours to learn.

In this stage I made lots of mistakes, along with judgments against myself for not already knowing how to do it. Judgment release can be very helpful here in the second stage because mistakes are integral to the learning process. They’re necessary because learning is essentially experimental and experience-based, trial and error. Information can be accumulated, but until it is practiced and used, it’s only information. It’s not learning, and certainly not a skill.

As I practiced, I moved into the third stage of learning, conscious competence. This felt a lot better, but still I wasn’t very smooth or fluid in my driving. I often had to think about what to do next, and that felt awkward and uncomfortable.

Finally, after enough practice, I got to the place where I didn’t have to think about every little thing I was doing while driving. I thought about my driving only when something alerted me to it. I became unconsciously competent. Because of the ease and grace in unconscious competence, my driving became much safer.”

Think of a skill you can perform well without thinking about it, driving, walking even making a cup of coffee. At one stage this was not an easy thing for you to do. You practised and stuck to it and eventually became unconsciously competent. It is possible with any skill including dancing. So get your dance shoes on and practise, practise, practise!