Take a moment and think back to your first year in education.
Go ahead, I'll wait.
(music quietly plays in background...the gentle chirping of crickets...)
If you took the time to stop and think, you may have experienced a slight shudder as you recalled everything you know now about teaching that you had no idea about back then.
And as you think about that potentially embarrassing time, you might not even be able to put into words what you're doing differently now that's effective, you just know that it works.
You've just envisioned yourself at the beginning and end of the 4 stages of learning. Thank you for playing along, you were wonderful.
Understanding how we develop skill in any area is important for educators, not just to better understand our students, but to better understand ourselves. Who we were when we started teaching is not who we are now: we've recognized that there's a lot we don't know, and we work to find new information to improve the areas where we struggle.
Here's a brief summary of the four stages of how we learn new things, and at the end, I'll propose a 5th that lets us exert a greater influence on the world around us.
- Unconscious Incompetence
At this stage, you have no idea what you don't know. You are a blissful, oblivious idiot. Don't feel bad, everyone has to go through it.
When I think about lesson planning and how poorly I did it at the beginning of my teaching career, I didn't realize how bad I truly was. Ignorance of what good instruction should look like kept me from understanding how all the components of a lesson should work together.
Everyone begins here, but if you're aware of it, you know you should start working to get yourself out of it.
- Conscious Incompetence
At this part of the cycle, you've become aware of what you don't know. In my 4th year of teaching, my district brought in a new evaluation system that included a super-detailed rubric identifying the components of strong teaching. It was at that point I realized I had a really long way to go to become an even halfway decent educator.
Becoming aware of incompetence is painful, but it's the first step toward becoming better.
- Conscious Competence
When you identify a body of knowledge and work to master it, you start to become aware of why you're being successful at what you're doing.
I remember this stage when it came to classroom management. After being terrible for a very long time (an extended stay in the incompetence phases), I realized there were certain techniques that were effective: proximity, lowering my voice instead of raising it, overlooking inconsequential behavior, planned transitions, etc. Once I knew these things existed, it took a great deal of effort to make sure I used them. But when I did, they worked. I was fully aware of what I had to to become better, so I became very intentional about doing those things.
- Unconscious Competence
Finally. You've arrived (although in just a minute I'll argue that you haven't). Everything you've spent all that time toiling over becomes automatic.
As a piano player of 25+ years, this particular skill set now falls into the category of unconscious competence. I couldn't even tell you why my hands land where they do on the keys anymore, they just do, and it typically sounds alright.
As educators, this happens when we can picture how a lesson will go before we even teach it, and we can recognize in advance instructional roadblocks we'll need to address. We've done it so much that it's automatic.
And so the cycle ends, in a nirvana-esque state of flow, never again to wonder why we are so exceptionally awesome at what we're doing. We just do it.
But the more I learn new things and teach them to others, the more I think there should be a 5th stage. Let's call it "Reflective Competence."
Reflective Competence comes after we've achieve conscious competence. In my experience, there is a danger in that 4th stage that we'll stop reflecting on our practice and instead just accept that we're good at something. In doing so, we stop thinking about what got us there.
With some skills, like driving a car or riding a bike, stage 4 competence is probably fine. But in teaching, tech integration, coaching, administrating, and pretty much everything else related to education, choosing to not be reflective will cause you to stagnate and die. Not only that, it prevents you from effectively sharing your experience with others in a way that helps them become better.
I think the best instructional coaches live in the reflective stage. They're constantly examining what has made them really good at what they do as they reflect on and analyze their successes and failures. In doing so, they find effective patterns that they can share and help others build their skills in a systematic way.
So I propose moving beyond unconscious competence in education, and pushing ourselves to do the hard work of reflecting on what got us where we are. It's only when we reach reflective competence that we can start making the people around us better.