Stages of Learning 

As you may know, I’m busy swotting up for my next teaching exam. I’m currently ploughing my way through the recommended reading list, but found an interesting and useful explanation of the stages of learning. 

From a teaching point of view it is very useful, but I also thought it would be useful for learners to know which stage they’re at.

Here are the four stages:

  • Unconscious incompetence 
  • Conscious incompetence 
  • Conscious competence
  • Unconscious competence 

Initially they seem a bit out there, and not very clear, so let me describe them for you.

Unconscious incompetence is the first stage, and I feel it’s slightly different to the others because it applies more to children than adults. Have you ever watched a child in their first riding lesson? They usually have this total lack of awareness of what they are supposed to be doing, but are grinning and thoroughly enjoying themselves. They are unaware of the fact that they haven’t developed any riding skills, and are totally reliant on their helper. They are just happily copying their friend/sibling/parent. So they are incompetent because they haven’t developed the necessary skills to actually ride a horse, but because they are sat on a pony, like their friend, they think they are horse riding. Which means that they are also unaware of how much they need to learn in order to ride a horse. Which leads to the title, unconscious incompetence  (because they are unaware of their lack of skills).

Conscious incompetence is the first stage of adult learning. An adult embarks upon learning to ride with the knowledge that they have a steep mountain to climb, and are only at the beginning of their journey. So these riders are aware of their lack of ability, and consciously incompetent.

Now as you learn and develop your skills you become competent. However, a certain amount of brain power and concentration is required in order to coordinate your aids, keep your balance, and think about where or how the horse is going. There is also an awareness of the skills you are yet to acquire. So you are consciously competent in your abilities – quite capable, but have to devote some mental focus in order to achieve.

The final stage, the one we all aspire to be at, is the stage of unconscious competence. This is when riding is second nature, autonomic, and you don’t need to think about what you are doing. Think of the top level riders, they don’t have to think about every single movement, aid, rebalance, in order to achieve their goal.

I’m sure most of you are thinking that you are consciously competent. And most probably you are, but I think the stages of learning now need to be developed further.

Once you have reached the competent phase, it is important to relate your stage of learning to the activity. Let’s take shoulder in, for example. If you are Charlotte Dujardin then you are unconsciously competent at riding shoulder in. If you are working at elementary level then you are more likely to be consciously competent at riding shoulder in, because you have to think and place yourself in order to achieve it.

The same goes for jumping. William Fox-Pitt probably doesn’t think twice about riding a skinny fence cross country, he adjusts his position and canter automatically, but the amateurs amongst us have to go through a checklist to ensure they have the correct canter approach to clear the skinny.

Perhaps the stages of competent learning should be viewed as more of a helix. As you develop a skill you are consciously competent, and once it is mastered, you are unconsciously competent and can move on to learning the next skill. You move up the helix like this until you are the world number one.

Hopefully this makes sense to everyone, but I think it is interesting to understand which stage of learning you’re at for which exercise, movement, or activity so that you can realise when you are progressing. 

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