Sandy Cameli, EdD • Hawaii Department of Education
After a recent 3-day intensive summer institute of professional learning with teacher leaders, a participant summed up the sessions by stating, “This is exactly the type of experience I didn’t know I needed!” And, with that closing comment the group - all seasoned educators with multiple degrees and accomplishments aligned with their names - endorsed the sentiment with a round of applause and enthusiastic head-nodding. This participant’s “aha” sounded profound, and yet it was quite common for any learner exposed to new knowledge or experiences. How do we know what we need, or don’t need, until we’ve been introduced to new learning or opportunities? And, more importantly as leaders, how do we support peers and colleagues who are at various stages of competence when it comes to educating, informing or enlightening the students, staff and stakeholders in our schools?
In the 1970s, business trainer Noel Burch created a model of learner development entitled “Four Stages of Learning Any New Skill”, which became the linear 4-step model for better understanding Conscious Competence. In subsequent years, and inspired by Maslow’s Hierarchy (1943), researchers, social-scientists, educators and professional trainers have helped redefine frameworks for conscious competence to reflect a more cyclical or spiraled model of learning - one which theorizes acquisition of new information or skills is ongoing and contributes to future understanding as an individual is exposed to multiple experiences.
In its most basic structure, the Conscious Competence framework consists of four stages: Unconscious Incompetence, Conscious Incompetence, Conscious Competence and Unconscious Competence. Stage 1: Unconscious Incompetence is when we don’t know what we don’t know. As learners we have not been exposed to certain knowledge, experiences or opportunities in order to understand a concept or action. We simply have no frame of reference. Stage 2: Conscious Incompetence provides awareness to a situation or activity, but ability and/or skill are still lacking. We understand and desire to be competent, but do not possess the wherewithal to attain this level. Resources and supports are necessary to move forward. Stage 3: Conscious Competence provides a learner with a level of satisfaction, as s/he can complete a task independently. Here we have achieved a level of proficiency with the new learning, experience or opportunity and are generally successful in fulfilling outcomes. And, although some tasks may still require following directions, the individual is capable of completing these tasks successfully. Stage 4: Unconscious Competence demonstrates a second-nature ability to completing an action without breaking down each step or thinking about how to achieve success. At this stage, a learner is able to teach others while also expanding his/her own breadth of understanding or knowledge.
Recently, I used my own Conscious Competence model as an example. Growing up in an Italian family I was exposed to delicious foods constantly, but as a toddler I did not understand where my favorite pasta came from, all that mattered was that I enjoyed it! (Unconscious Incompetence). As our family gathered at my grandmother’s house for special occasions I became acutely aware that this mouth-watering cuisine did not come from a can, box or restaurant, but rather was handmade by our matriarch on a regular basis. I did not know how she did it, but I was curious and wanted to learn (Conscious Incompetence). One summer when I was in high school, my grandmother bought me and each cousin our own pasta machine, and as a way of preserving her traditions she taught us all how to make handmade pasta. Under her guidance and oral recipe, we learned how to make angel hair and fettuccine noodles. And, while I was not completely independent of all support, I had learned necessary steps for turning flour into pasta over the course of a summer (Conscious Competence). Preparing special meals and continuing family traditions was second-nature and part of my grandmother’s DNA when it came to cooking, and although she would have gone through all previous stages to live in Unconscious Competence mode, it was impossible to tell, as her actions were seamless. Unfortunately, I have not reached that level of mastery when it comes to cooking, but am appreciative to all those chefs who have!
As leaders we often find ourselves frustrated with others, and perhaps laying blame when peers’ actions or attitudes do not align with our own. Conflicts and dissention between colleagues can result in impatience or lack of understanding when we are not aware of the various learning stages individuals move through. Effective leaders understand that perspective will always dictate outcomes based on the knowledge, skills and experiences brought to the table by participants.
Take the example of a baby eating pasta and subsequently throwing it on the floor. The child has no concept of how the noodles were made or by whom, thus it would be futile for a parent to admonish the toddler for not appreciating the hand-made meal when her level of understanding is still at the unconscious incompetence level. Likewise, when a team of educators attends a conference and then returns to their school enthusiastic to employ new ideas and innovative practices, it would be unfair for the conference attendees to criticize or pass judgement on peers who did not attend and are hesitant to embrace new concepts and resources they are unfamiliar with, or have no exposure to.
The Conscious Competence framework is not an assessment tool, but a perception tool leaders can use to evaluate their own level of delivery, guidance and support offered to others. When leaders understand - and remember - how individuals internalize and process information, then resources & supports can be provided to grow others’ understanding, as well as build teams of collaborative colleagues.