23 April 2004

Spiral Learning

23 April 2004

There is a model of learning that says that, in general, people progress from unconscious incompetence, to conscious incompetence, to unconscious competence, to conscious competence.

Basically, a person starts out not knowing how much they don't know, progresses to the 'a little knowledge is a dangerous thing' stage, then begins to understand how much they have yet to learn, and finally, if they stick with it, they master a particular subject or skill.

This learning model has always seemed spiral in nature.  Many subjects or skills have levels of mastery that can be attained that leave the student with something that they can teach the next person coming up behind them while at the same time allowing the student to continue to learn, if they so choose.

Something this model leaves out are the feelings attached to each learning stage.  During unconscious incompetence is when I feel the most optimistic.  It is also the point at which I am most like to underestimate how long a particular project will take me.  

Conscious Incompetence is always accompanied by a sinking feeling in my gut.  This is the time when I am most likely to be derailed by illness or distracted by enthusiasm for a new project or skill set.  This is also the phase during which I am most vulnerable to mixing up the difficulty I am having learning my new subject with my own self-worth.  I, like many, tend to see my own worth in what I have accomplished, and when I am learning a new skill and taking two steps back for every one forward, it is hard not to take that struggle personally.  

Unconscious Competence is a slippery time emotionally.  Frequently, my evaluation of my own skills lags behind my actual ability. Really, I think that is the entire point of this phase of learning.  I spend so many years being conscious of my own incompetence that the time that I become fluent in what-ever-it-is, I'm in the middle of learning something else new and am dealing with a whole new round of sinking feelings.

Conscious Competence is not something I have a lot of experience with.  Perhaps I take it for granted.  I have always thought of it in terms of mastering an academic subject or a difficult skill.  I tend to assume that any skill that I can learn is one that others can master and take further.  In the past, I have seen this as an exclusive, rather than inclusive category, something obtained by professionals who have stuck it out in their field for many years.  

Upon reflection, I have come to realize is that Conscious Competence is fleeting.  It is a hilltop moment followed by another round of Unconscious Incompetence and all the steps that lead around the spiral to the next break in the clouds.  It may be, that as I spiral up the mountain, the cloud-breaks will come more frequently and last longer.  However, the trade-off is that the air is thinner and it gets more and more difficult to make it round the next bend.  At some point I have to decide when it is time to scale a different mountain and enjoy the moments of clarity that come with breathing easily. 

It is also important to realize that each skill, each mountain, does not require the same effort from each person.  Just because as skill is easy someone else, does not mean that I can follow where they lead without making sacrifices or stumbling on the path that they seem to walk with ease.

What I must remember is that the reverse is also true.  Subjects and skills that come easily to me may come to others only with long practice or much stumbling around in the dark.  Each person has to decide how much of that they are willing to put up with. 

Desire is what motivates the next step along the path.  How much do I want to be able to do what-ever-it-is that I am learning?  How much do I need a particular skill for what I want to do next in my life?  Answering these questions is much more important than asking how difficult the journey will be.  For me and the way that I learn, 'Why' is ever so much more important than 'How.'

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