In my various roles in life, I often find myself with an opportunity to teach others. From coaching my clients or explaining new tools or ways of working in group sessions or helping my daughters build a fort, the teacher hat is worn a lot these days. 

In doing a little research on effective teaching strategies for various learning types, I discovered the hierarchy of competence, sometimes known as the “stages of learning”.

  Here, they describe four levels of competence:

  • Unconscious Incompetence: you are unaware of what you do not know
  • Conscious Incompetence: you are aware of what you do not know
  • Conscious Competence: you actively practice your skills
  • Unconscious Competence: your skills are second nature to you

In order to empower people to move through the stages efficiently, as the teacher, you must first understand where they are starting from and adapt your techniques to meet them where they are. It is perfectly reasonable for someone to be at any given stage of competence on their learning journey and recognizing where someone is in the hierarchy is a crucial step in building confidence in your students. 

When moving people through the learning stages, it is important to give time for each phase, especially between unconscious and conscious incompetence. Letting people contemplate the need for the new skill(s) and understand the importance of that skill is a critical success factor. Without understanding the importance, the willingness to learn may be jeopardized. In other words, if someone doesn’t know there’s a problem, they may not be open to change.   

Here’s an example: I recently worked with a group on the relationship building aspect of project management. Rather than solely focusing on managing tasks, budget and deliverables of a given project, there is an opportunity to engage on a deeper level that could lead to increased client engagement, business, etc.

I could see this idea was more difficult for a few group members because they were moving from unconscious to conscious incompetence. I made them aware of a previously unrealized, but now necessary skill for them to be successful in their role. They may not currently possess the ability to engage on a more personal level in a professional setting or may not feel confident in their ability to do it well. This discomfort can paralyze a person if it is not handled appropriately. By knowing this, I could sympathize with the experience and adjust my technique to better support the experience of moving into conscious incompetence, which is where I initially assumed everyone was starting.

Another pivotal moment is once someone has received training and is equipped with the knowledge to perform their new skill. They are now in conscious competence and access to support will be critical. While they have the knowledge, it takes practice, conscious awareness and hard work to perform the skill. Having access to a mentor or training materials will be important during this phase to move into unconscious competence, where a person has enough experience to perform the skill with ease.

As a teacher, we have choice in how we support our students. We can go the path of least resistance and offer a “one size fits all” approach, or we can take a moment to recognize where folks are on their learning journey and provide small and impactful guidance to build confidence in our students.