Forty years ago, Noel Burch developed a new model for learning. Burch worked at the Gordon Training Institute founded by psychologist Thomas Gordon. Their specialty was conflict resolution and building effective interpersonal relationships. Burch identified the following four stages of learning.
In the first level, “We don’t know that we don’t know.” People in this group include individuals who think they know more than they do! It is the most dangerous of all the four levels of learning and the most destructive. Ideas coming from this level are often ill-informed. Folks in this group tend to force their ideas on others…often they will misinform. After all, doing the research required to make a logical presentation of the facts is hard.
In the second level, “We don’t know it all; but, at least, we recognize that we don’t know it all.” All learning begins at this level. It is not until we realize there is room for improvement that we can begin to improve ourselves.
In the third level, “We know stuff, but we have to work at it.” This is where learning gets intense. We’re working hard at developing our skills. There is, though, a new problem that emerges at this level.
The plateau effect
You’ve, most likely, experienced this effect. You are working on something and you are making progress. Then, in just a moment, it’s almost as if you’re going backward – all progress has stopped.
For example, you want to lose weight. You start your new eating plan and lose ten pounds almost immediately. Then…all weight loss stops…maybe for a week…maybe longer. Nothing has changed. You’re still doing what worked at the beginning. What has happened? You are plateauing.
This is a frustrating experience and one that stops most people dead in their tracks. It’s only by plowing through this plateau that progress begins again. Progress often restarts itself at an accelerated pace. It’s as if the temporary setback allowed you an opportunity to regroup. When you start up again, progress is quicker and more efficient. However, don’t get too confident because, rest assured, there is another plateau waiting for you. Future problems almost solve themselves when you get good at this plateau stuff.
Learning at this level can be most exciting and fulfilling. You’re succeeding and learning at an accelerated pace!
The final level is the state to which we all aspire. Our skills are, now, second nature and we soar to new heights. We’re good and we don’t even have to think about it. We’re not done yet, though!
It’s a cycle
There is a cycle at work. When you reach the level of Unconscious Competent, you are only made more aware of what you don’t know. Everything is working at a higher level.
Folks who operate at this level find themselves alone. Few people operate at this elevated level of learning. The term “lonely at the top” is appropriate for them.
The whole idea of realizing that ‘you don’t know (or may never know) it all’ becomes a level unto itself. You are aware of the cycle, but it has become unconscious. You continue improving and developing. That’s why the best people get better and better and better.
Next time, we’ll look at how all this applies to learning how to paint!