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How We Learn

Michael D. Callaghan
I help build cool web apps | Author of,, and more at Amazon | #LDS
Originally published at Updated on ・3 min read

Cross-posted from my Walking River Blog

Have you ever stopped to think about how we learn things? I was recently reflecting on when my 15-year old was learning to drive. I had the unenviable job of teaching him. At the time, it struck me that he had to think about every little detail of what he was doing. He needed to be reminded to check his mirrors, signal his lane changes, look behind him when backing up, etc.. Learning to drive requires absolute and complete attention. He didn't even have the spare mental capacity to listen to music.

Watching him struggle reminded me of something I learned many years ago about how we learn new things. Regardless of what we are learning -- whether it's driving, putting up drywall, or learning a new programming language -- we all go through four stages of learning. You could think of them as the four steps of mastery. They are:

  1. Unconscious incompetence: You don't know what you don't know
  2. Conscious incompetence: You understand what you don't know and want to learn
  3. Conscious competence: You start to understand, with effort
  4. Unconscious competence: You internalize your understanding and no longer have to thing about it. You just "get it."

In my son's case, step 1 occurred when he realized he wanted to drive, but had no idea what that entails. This is the stage where every little detail needs to be explained. Progress is slow, but as long as he has enthusiasm for the subject, we move forward.

Likewise, you may decide that you want to learn mobile app development, but don't know where to begin. This is Step 1, Unconscious Incompetence. You may not even know what technologies are available to help you. But you're excited about a new idea you had that will change the world.

So you do some research, read some online blogs, talk to friends and colleagues, and perhaps pick a place to start. You understand pretty well that there is much you still have to learn. You at least know what you don't know, and have now reached Step 2, or Conscious Incompetence. This is the prime learning stage. You read more specific articles, maybe take some classes, or watch training videos.

If you're like most people, this isn't quite enough. You have begun to understand the material on an intellectual level. Now you need to practice, apply what you've learned. After doing this awhile, you finally reach Step 3, or Conscious Competence. Your skills are improving, but you aren't completely comfortable yet. This is the time when you slowly become accustomed to the new skill, but still occasionally need to appeal to your local experts, refer to reference material, or post to Stack Overflow.

As you continue to practice and apply your knowledge, eventually you'll discover that you no longer need to look up the syntax of an obscure feature or the parameters of troublesome functions. You may also realize that you are answering more questions than you're asking. Congratulations. You've reached Step 4, Unconscious Competence, the ultimate pinnacle of mastery.

Depending on the subject, you may be satisfied to stop at step 3. It may not be possible to go further. That's OK. It isn't necessary or even desirable to master every subject or every skill.

You may have noticed that I haven't said anything about the time this takes. That depends on many factors: your personal or professional interest the subject, the time you have to spend on this compared to other demands, or how well you have learned to learn. That's right, you go through these same steps even when learning to learn.

What should you take away from this? Keep these steps in mind the next time you start to learn a new skill. And in the meantime, practice your learning. Pick a topic. Study it. Pay attention to the steps you go through.

In another post, I discuss how these same steps can apply from a different perspective: that of a teacher. I show how the teacher's approach has to change, according to which step the student is on.

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