This article shares 4 interesting perspectives and 5 guidelines to design training for skill acquisition towards unconscious competence.
How does an individual acquire unconscious competence? Skill acquisition towards higher level competence kept me fascinated for years. While developing my doctorate literature review, I started out with some research on models of expertise/competence development. My other posts address some staged models of skill acquisition towards a higher level of competence, proficiency, and expertise. While I explained the Progressions in Novice to Mastery Skill Development in general, I also described 7 Phases of Skill Acquisition: Mastery and Beyond on Dreyfus’s Model. Taking it further, I compiled notable 7 Models That Explain How Novice Develops into an Expert. Though most of the body of knowledge out there is focused on stages of development as opposed to techniques of development, I thought it may make sense to talk about the oldest and most commonly used model called “unconscious competence” which explains the stages of competence development which training and non-training professionals both can relate to.
When I was a kid I got my new bicycle. Not waiting for the next day I started riding it hardly worrying about whether or not I knew how to ride. Not knowing when to paddle and when to steer I fell a couple of times. Those were enough to tell me that I didn’t know how to ride it. As I took help and coaching from others I started perfecting it and maneuvering it in different situations. The more I did so more I was confident. Eventually, I was able to enjoy races to stunt to sightseeing as if cycling was my borne talent. The journey I just explained is called ‘Unconscious Competence Theory’. I thought I will expand upon my last post and explain this model in detail. There are some variations of or improvisation of this model.
Robinson (1974) Conscious Competence Model of Skill Acquisition
The early known work in explaining the mechanism of developing proficiency is known as ‘conscious competence’. Though the academic grounds of this theory are quite unknown, an article in The Personnel Journal (1974) attributes the origin of conscious competence theory to W. Lewis Robinson, Vice President of ICS. The article quotes Robinson explaining that individuals progress through four definite stages of learning a new skill (or behavior, ability, technique, etc.). This model explains skill acquisition in common-sense terms:
a) Unconscious incompetence:
A naïve is assumed to be at the ‘unconscious incompetence stage. At this stage, a person is not aware of that he lacks a particular skill or in several cases, the individual may not even know the relevance or usefulness of the skill.
b) Conscious incompetence:
Then the person moves to a stage of ‘conscious incompetence’ where he starts becoming aware of the existence and relevance of the skill, and they may start recognizing how much he doesn’t know. This usually happens with a discovery process. Now he starts working toward attaining that skill and does necessary practice.
c) Conscious competence:
Eventually, he reaches a stage of ‘conscious competence’ in which he can reliably perform the learned skill without assistance. This still requires attention, concentration and has not yet become automatic at it.
d) Unconscious competence:
However, with consistent practice and repeated use, the individual moves to the next stage of ‘unconscious competence’ when the skill becomes automatic (i.e. the skill enters the subconscious mind and becomes second nature).
The original nomenclature of competency has been replaced by the broader term competence and is called ‘Conscious competence theory’. The model has several representations, the popular being the quadrant matrix (as shown in Figure below).
Figure: Four-quadrant representation of unconscious competence theory
The model emphasizes progression is from quadrants 1 through 2 and 3 to 4. It is not possible to jump stages. For some advanced skills, an individual may actually regress back to previous stages for want of consistent practice on newly learned skills (as cited by Chapman of Business Balls, n.d). Interested readers may refer to an exhaustive article written by Alan Chapman at his Business Balls website (see references below) in regards to a detailed account of the evolution of this model.
Other variations of representations included the superimposition of Dreyfus & Dreyfus’s (1986) five-stage skill acquisition model (as shown in the next figure published by Drejer 2000). Gordon Institute (www.gordontraining.com) is known to use this as a learning model in its training programs.
Figure: Dreyfus & Dreyfus’s (1986) five stages of skill acquisition explained through unconscious competence theory (Courtesy: Drejer, A. 2000)
The issue with these models is that it conceptually explain how an individual learns but do not provide a way to quantify or segregate the development path of a learner. There are not very clear-cut indications of how to measure attainment of each stage or where a particular stage ends. Further, we do not know if this model is grounded in research or not.
There is still a debate on whether the last stage should be unconscious competence or it should be called conscious competence where the learner can explain what he is doing (Cheetam & Chivers, 2005).
Langvin’s variation of Unconscious Competence Model of Skill Acquisition
Langvin institute (2012) uses the conscious competence model by renaming the stages using terminology from Dreyfus (2001) and Hoffman (2006) terminology. Their stages are: Novice/ Unconscious Incompetence, The Apprentice/ Conscious Incompetence, The Journeymen /Conscious Competence, The Master / Unconscious Competence. Cited from Langvin website:
The Novice/Unconscious Incompetence: Often learners display excitement and enthusiasm in this stage because they don’t know that they don’t know.
The Apprentice/Conscious Incompetence: In this stage, the learners know they don’t know. This is where they recognize that they are out of their comfort zone because the skill to be learned may be more difficult than anticipated. It is at this stage that the learner may want to give up. It is important at this stage to build confidence with continued mentoring and coaching.
The Journeymen/ Conscious Competence: Here, the learners know they know. With consistent practice and feedback, the learners usually experience different levels of success. It is not uncommon for there to be some level of frustration because they are still conscious that they must concentrate and pay attention to performing the skill correctly; however, in time, and through trial and error, the practice becomes less challenging.
The Master/Unconscious Competence: In this stage of learning, the learners don’t know what they know. The learner has such mastery of the skill(s) that it becomes automatic. They no longer have to think about it; it becomes effortless. This is where the learner may experience magical moments because they feel intuitive, creative, and think outside of the box; however, it is also at this stage where major mistakes can occur because there is a tendency to take risks and shortcuts.
Both of these models, just like Robinson’s model are not known to be grounded in research. However, it makes quite common sense and representation is easy to understand.
Will Taylor (2007) Reflective Competence Model of Skill Acquisition
The new body of arguments is emerging which indicate that at the ‘Unconscious competence’ level, the individual may cease to learn any further and may lack knowledge or skills on new methods and thus as an expert individual will find himself once again unconsciously incompetent. To close this loop, William Taylor suggested a Reflective Competence Model (as cited by Business Balls, n.d.) with a fifth level called ‘Reflective competence’ to represent the continuous self-observation to keep ideas and skills fresh, and allows for skill development further (shown in Figure 3).
Figure: Reflective Competence Model (Courtesy: Will Taylor, 2007, Chair, Department of Homeopathic Medicine, National College of Natural Medicine)
This model, though very simple, does not explain the exact mechanisms of proficiency development are not known. The model, however, seems to have application in repetitive and familiar tasks in which it is possible to achieve automaticity through practice. However, the reflective competence stage also suggests that learner needs to be aware of what they need to know to tackle novel situations in which automaticity would not help them.
Just like previous models of unconscious competence, it is not known if the model is grounded in research or not. However, it makes quite common sense and representation is easy to understand.
4 Interesting Perspectives from Research About Unconscious Competence Models
There are few very interesting perspectives from various researchers which makes this simple model even more interesting:
a) Regressing back in the cycle
The model dictates that it may not be possible to jump the stages. In fact, the reverse could be true. For some advanced skills, an individual may actually regress back to previous stages for want of consistent practice on newly learned skills (Chapman, n.d). There is this very interesting argument by some researchers which indicates that at the ‘Unconscious competence’ level, the individual may cease to learn any further and may lack knowledge or skills on new methods, and thus an individual will find himself once again unconsciously incompetent. Doesn’t that happen all the time when we do not practice something we were once competent in?
Figure: Skill acquisition, progression, and regression back to previous stages (Adapted from elijahconsulting.com)
b) Reflective Competence as the next stage in the cycle
There is another perspective too. We do not stay unconscionably competence all the time unless we continue practicing it and keep making some adjustments and improvements in our competence. If we don’t do so, we lose competence in some cases. That is how William Taylor (Chair, Department of Homeopathic Medicine, National College of Natural Medicine) suggested that after ‘unconscious competence’ there is a fifth stage too. Reflective Competence represents the continuous self-observation to keep ideas and skills fresh and allows for skill development further (as cited by Chapman at Business Ball Website). In reality, it is a closed-loop cycle of these 5 stages of competence development.
c) the Last stage in the cycle?
Another interesting point is about a debate on whether expertise’s last stage should be unconscious competence or it should be called conscious competence where the learner can explain what he is doing (Cheetam & Chivers, 2005). Nevertheless, this raises a hypothesis that as opposed to linear stages, it could be a circle. I think as a trainer this makes sense that we need to be at conscious competence to be able to interact and demonstrate each step in the skill development vividly to the learners.
d) Where is automaticity in the cycle?
How can we ignore the practice and how automaticity is achieved in developing competence? Fitts (1964) provided a similar model in skill development which supports progression from conscious to a less conscious form of practice. Fitts (1964) model explains skill development to be the progression from conscious to a less conscious form of practice. His model has only three stages of expertise:
- Cognitive stage: Learner constantly and consciously interact with nature and mechanics of what is being done
- Practice fixation stage: Multiple repetitions help to bring the steps in the long-term memory
- Autonomous stage: At this stage, skill can be automatically or subconsciously executed. The conscious mind can be used in monitoring and solving the problem.
The highest stage in this model highlights “subconscious” use of skill whereas the previous model calls it an unconscious state. Fitts’ (1964) usage of the state appears is more appropriate. This model provides the mechanism by which automaticity is achieved. However, it does not directly demarcate the level of expertise that can be measured.
5 Training Guidelines to Develop Unconscious Competence
The issue with these models is that they conceptually explain how an individual learns but do not provide a way to quantify or segregate the development path of a learner. There are not very clear-cut indications of how to measure attainment of each stage or where a particular stage ends. It is undeniable that it is a simple and good model to explain how an individual’s competence passes through various stages in his journey to acquire expertise.
#1 Build Intense Practice:
Build intense practice during the first 3 phases to accelerate the time taken by an individual to move from unconscious incompetence to conscious competence. How fast an individual can move through the first 3 stages is dependent on the quality of practice exercises. Ericsson & Charness’s (1994) deliberate practice concept guides how to make use of a trainer to coach and how to make use of a good feedback mechanism.
# 2 Performance Support System:
Once an individual has reached the unconscious competence stage, then you need to design an appropriate performance support system. To avoid losing the touch with skills and new updates, build a variety of regular boosts of practice, deployment, and updates to the individuals.
#3 Reflection Exercises:
For the individuals who have reached unconscious competence, build appropriate reflection into this post-training performance support system. One way may be some kind of meet-up and spaced post-training self-assessment survey.
#4 Skill Specificity:
The model is skill-specific. An individual may be of unconscious competence in one skill while he may be at conscious competence for another skill. Therefore, training programs and post-training support have to provide a variety of intense practice and post-training performance systems which could take care of all the skills at different levels.
#5 Feedback and introspection:
Design a teaching assignment or coaching assignment for the individual under training for giving them the opportunity to peer-coach their colleagues. By doing so, they stay tuned well with conscious competence which forces them to think about how they gained the expertise. This exercise also helps to build reflective competence in the design.
Attri, RK (2018), ‘5 Guidelines to Develop Unconscious Competence and Become Expert’, [Blog post], Speed To Proficiency Research: S2PRo©, Available online at <https://get-there-faster.com/blog/skill-acquisition-unconscious-competence/>.
- Chapman, A (n.d) Conscious competence learning model matrix – unconscious incompetence to unconscious competence”. Business Balls. https://www.businessballs.com/self-awareness/conscious-competence-learning-model-63/
- Drejer, A. (2000),”Organisational learning and competence development”, The Learning Organization, Vol. 7 Iss: 4 pp. 206 – 220
- Langvin (2012), The Four Stages of Learning, Langevin Blog, Jan 9th, 2012
- Will Taylor (2007) Department of Homeopathic Medicine, National College of Natural Medicine, Portland, Oregon, USA, March 2007
- Conscious Competency – The Mark of a Competent Instructor – The Personnel Journal – Baltimore, July 1974, Volume 53, PP538-539 – [supplied by The British Library – Shelf Mark 6428.065000]
- Cheetham, G. & Chivers, G. (2005) Professions, Competence And Informal Learning, Edward Elgar Publications
Main image attribution: Pixabay.com CC0 distribution license.