The Learning Escalator

Ask a child, “What’s the best way to go up to a higher level via an escalator?”

They’ll probably tell you to find an escalator that is coming down from a higher level, and to run up against it, against its relentless downward movement.

Four Steps to Learning

There’s a theory of learning called the “Four Stages of Competence” which was proposed by Noel Burch at Gordon Training International.  This model describes four steps that a person must take in order to go from one level of ability to the next.

Ye Olde StepsThe four steps are as follows:

  1. UI – Unconscious Incompetence – Where we don’t know what we don’t know
  2. CI – Conscious Incompetence – Where we know what we don’t know
  3. CC – Conscious Competence – Where we can do it, but only with a lot of focus and attention
  4. UC – Unconscious Competence – Where we can do it, fluidly, automatically, as a habit

For example…

  1. UI – The newborn hears sounds but doesn’t understand that these are, in fact, spoken words from other people meant to communicate ideas
  2. CI – The infant realizes that certain sounds are intended as speech, but is unable to comprehend the content or vocalize the phonemes
  3. CC – The toddler gradually learns to speak and comprehend an ever-expanding vocabulary, picking up on implicit rules of grammar, syntax and pronunciation
  4. UC – The child discusses a familiar topic their “native” language.

..or how about…

  1. UI – A person of any age, reacting to a particular person’s words or actions in a predictable and negative manner, not realizing the extent of this other person’s influence on their thoughts, moods and actions
  2. CI –  A person of any age, realizing that the words or actions of a particular person sometimes “pushes their buttons,” and wishing that they didn’t
  3. CC – A person of any age, slowly put surely developing their situational self-awareness and emotion self-management, particularly in response to stressful external stimuli such as a the words or actions of a particular person
  4. UC – A person demonstrating “naturally” high levels of emotional intelligence

Performing at the Top Level

You would think that at the fourth level — unconscious competence — is the pinnacle, where you find the top performers.

penn station purple escalator 1In reality, it’s this level where a new form of trouble shows up:  Where a person can get too comfortable, too complacent.

Intelligence can be like having four wheel drive… a smart person still gets stuck like everybody else, except they do it further out in the woods and have a harder time finding their way back.

Unconscious competence is the birthplace of bad habits… and environmental obliviousness.

Have you ever seen a person reach the peak of their career, and then languish afterwards?   Perhaps it’s the person who earned that big corner office thanks to something they did 5-10 years ago… but they’re not longer in touch with the realities of the changing market.

Some people achieve great heights of inspiration and achievement once in their lives… and they cruise on that success for a while… until eventually they slip back… never to regain that level of accomplishment… the one hit wonder… their name forgotten.

Maybe it’s because what they do well no longer needs to be done the way they’re used to doing it — or doesn’t need to be done at all, anymore.

Maybe it’s because they’ve got hung up on the details and have forgotten the bigger point.

Or maybe it’s just because they’ve gotten sloppy.

The reason this happens is because the four steps to learning are actually an escalator, slowly moving downwards.

penn station purple escalator 2

The Learning Escalator

There is no such thing as being “done” with learning — there is only continuous learning, unlearning and re-learning.

This is not to say that it’s an endless, Sisyphean treadmill — you can easily move up faster than the steps move down, and take a few breaks along the way and enjoy the view as you move up — but you can’t ever consider yourself “done.”

  • Something you did today — some action or pattern of thinking — used to be a good idea, but it no longer works for you as well as it once did.
  • Something else you didn’t do — something you are conscious or even unconsciously aware of — would have been a good idea to try, had you known how to do it.

The escalator is descending.  Even a child understands that this is the best and most fun way to go up a level.

Keep on moving, don’t stop… and enjoy the ride.


About danspira

My blog is at: My face in real life appears at a higher resolution, although I do feel pixelated sometimes.

Posted on May 28, 2013, in Coaching, Instructional Design, Learning, Life, Metaphors, photography, Positivity, Productivity, Talent and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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