The four steps to learning

Four step learning ladder – a model for learning to learn

Personal learning four steps, conscious competence

Personal learning four steps, conscious competence

The Learning Ladder describes the steps we go through when learning a new skill.

Four levels or steps of learning

Unconscious incompetence – We don’t know what we don’t know

Conscious incompetence – We know what we don’t know

Conscious competence – We know what we know

Unconscious competence – We don’t know what we know

It can be applied to virtually all learning scenarios but the example we will use here is learning a second language. Suppose we think about learning to speak German.

How might we understand this learning model?

I begin as a child, at a level of Unconscious Incompetence. I cannot speak the language but I am not aware of this.

I may not even know Germany or language other than my mother tongue exists. One year we go on holiday to Germany. As my awareness expands I move to a level of Conscious Incompetence - I am aware that the language “German” exists and I am aware that I cannot speak it. I now have the option to do something about it.

I embark on a German course and become a proficient speaker. However, I am not yet fluent, I have to concentrate hard to get it right and am aware of my limitations. I am at a level of Conscious Competence.

Finally, after many years of learning and practise I become fluent in German, start to think in German and even dream in German. Speaking a foreign language becomes second nature to me and I no longer have to concentrate hard on the formation of the language. I have reached the level of Unconscious Competence.

Think of some other learning scenarios and see how these steps apply. Consider how you can use this information to help people learn more effectively.

“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life, and you will call it fate.” – Carl Jung


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About Mike Morrison

Mike Morrison is a consultant and change agent specialising in developing skills in senior people to increase organizational performance.
Mike is also founder & director of RapidBI, an organizational effectiveness consultancy.

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  4. [...] programmes believe they have understanding – however as is often shown using the model – the four steps to learning  we don’t know what we don’t know (unconscious competence), is often the mental state we are in [...]

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