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The 4 Stages for Learning Any New Skill

Andreea Clair
ECEMEA Marketing Manager

In the 70s, author Martin M. Broadwell developed an interesting theory that made people see learning in a different light.

He believed that regardless of which new skill you decide to learn, there are four stages you must go through to achieve it. The idea was later refined by Broadwell’s employee who completed that being aware of these stages helps you better accept that learning can sometimes be a slow and even uncomfortable process.

In today’s ever-changing world of technology, we are constantly struggling with the challenge of having to learn new skills. For some individuals, the obstacle for achieving them comes about at an early stage of the learning process, when they need to determine which current actions require improving.

Stage 1: you don’t know what you don’t know

Broadwell called it the “unconscious incompetence”, and referred to it as the moment when you are not aware of how your current status could be improved.

If you want to become a professional pole vaulter, for example, and you’re not able to master the perfect take-off even after months of training, it’s because of a few reasons you’ve probably overlooked. Maybe you’re not getting enough speed, or something stops you from getting sufficient kinetic energy during the vault; regardless of the limitations, at this stage of the learning process you’re unable to acknowledge them, hence the stumbling block to make any improvements.  

Before trying to learn a new skill, you must first recognize your own deficit. However, being aware of your mistakes and accepting change can be difficult to take in. And for those who fail to admit that to themselves, learning gets stuck at this very stage.

Stage 2: you know there’s something you don’t know

American educator John Holt believed that the true test of character is not how much we know how to do, but how we behave when we don’t know what to do. His idea backs up Broadwell’s theory in a surprising way.

During the second stage of the learning process, while you might not still be able to understand how to do something, you manage to recognize there’s a deficit. Most importantly, you start seeing the value of the new skill in addressing that deficit. That is called “conscious incompetence”.

If you carry that effort forward, despite that mistakes may occur along the way, it’s just a matter of time until you get to the next stage of achieving your goal.  

Stage 3: you’ve figured out what you didn’t know  

How some of Isaac Newton’s revelations about gravity were prompted by an apple falling onto his head may be a mere legend, but it says something about how the learning process works.

The third stage, or as Broadwell named it, “conscious competence”, is when you know exactly what you’ve done wrong and you’re determined to see what happens when you adjust that. Even if proving you’ve achieved the new skill does require focus and heavy conscious involvement in execution, this is the moment when the first benefits of learning will finally start to show.

Stage 4: you’ve fully mastered what you didn’t know

It’s true to say - we first make our habits, and then our habits make us. This also concludes the process of learning through a fourth and final stage - “unconscious competence”.

Practicing a new skill long enough until it becomes second nature is what will enable you to master it. And before you know, you’ll be handling the skill with such ease that you’ll be able to start working on another, and soon enough, to teach others how to do the same. Remember that an expert in anything was once a beginner, too.

Of course, many of the theories about learning are easier said than done. But given the challenges the Information Age has laid ahead for us, they have certainly become useful to look into.

Learning is a process of keeping abreast of change, and our most pressing task is to find out how we can be the most effective with this process. Broadwell might have put together a valuable theory in this sense, but it’s up to us to make the most of it.

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