The Conscious Competence Ladder

This concept was developed by Noel Burch, from Gordon Training International. It was originally developed in the 1970s.

Here is a table, defining each level of conscious (or unconscious) competence, and a graphic (below the table) to help in visualizing the information in the table. One thing I hope that you will keep in mind as you go through this bit of information is that this is for helping you in knowing your mind. If we can apply things to ourselves, first, and come to understand ourselves better, first, then we might be better equipped to share with others, the things we, ourselves, come to learn.

Level of Understanding The Current State Moving Up
 Unconscious incompetence(The person does not know what he or she does not know.  He or she is lost and doesn’t know it.) The individual is clueless that he or she doesn’t understand or know how to do something. If the individual is aware of his or her need, then, quite often, he or she will contradict the need of the particular skill in question. In order to mature from this level, the individual must be exposed to situations, more often, in which the little used or understood skill is in greater demand.  If there is a weak stimulus to increase a particular behavior in learning, then the individual will remain at this level longer.
Conscious incompetence(The person knows that he or she does not know. The realization comes that he or she IS lost) The beginning of wisdom. The person becomes aware that they do not know, and they can see the advantage of knowing or being able to do. The awareness of one’s own lack, and the recognition of errors that have been and will be made can be very difficult to deal with. Confidence and morale may drop when entering into this area of the spectrum.  Making a commitment to improvement is about the surest method to use in moving through this range of the learning spectrum. Having become more aware of the value of skills that are now being understood, as well as one’s own incompetence at these levels is the beginning of maturation and growth in the learning process. The amount of effort (energy), commitment, and time that are devoted in this range will effectively reduce the amount of time here, and help the learner to grow into the next level.
 Conscious competence(The person knows that he or she knows.) The person finally “gets it,” but needs to exert some amount of mental effort at the accomplishment of whatever needs to be “gotten.” Not only that, but constant cognitive effort must be applied, in order to continually maintain a good and improving level of performance. The person would be able to demonstrate the particular skill or bit of learning, but will not be able to teach it at this level as effectively as the next. Experience, either through formal or informal learning, is what will pull the person through this level. The commitment to improvement, that started in the previous level continues at this level, but it is more directed and focused. Confidence and morale which may have dropped at the previous level will begin to be built in this level. Recognition of where one stands, in this level, may help to engender greater motivation to reach the next level.Complexity of the task at hand, the learner’s levels of abilities, and desires will determine the person’s length of stay at this level.  Practice makes perfect, but “perfect” isn’t what we normally think it is. “Perfect,” in this realm, is simply to be thought of as “mature” or “complete”.
 Unconscious competence(He or she has forgotten more than some will ever know.) The achievement of “second nature” is found at this level. The learner has become so proficient at the task or concept that he or she no longer has to devote any great amount of effort to it. The task at hand can be performed with a low level of inaccuracy while consciously directing his or her focus of attention elsewhere, at the same time. People who have achieved this level of knowledge must be alert to the concept of the curse of knowledge. What happens, at this point, is that the individual is so competent and confident in his or her abilities, they may only be able to explain matters to others at or near their level of understanding.  Also, with advancing technology the way it is, today, a person would be wise to keep up with advancing knowledge in their chosen arena, or else they may be passed by.
The fifth level in the diagram below shows what can be termed “reflective competence.”  It is in this area that an individual can not only perform things as second nature, but he or she also knows and understands his or her specialty and is able to clearly teach others, without the “curse of knowledge,” previously mentioned.

Whereas this concept of “Conscious Competence” was developed mainly for the recognition, use, and development of physical skills, the concept can be applied to learning, at a general level. There are other “mental skills where conscious, non-repetitive, complex and creative mental operations are demanded”. (Mata, L.A., 2004) These skills, at their lower levels can be followed through this concept, but upon higher levels of learning, they will diverge from the physical skills.

Levels of Understanding in Learning

(The Conscious Competence Model)


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