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Help teachers become unconsciously competent

A four-step process to help your teams be nimble and quickly develop mastery of new skills.

6 min read


Help teachers become unconsciously competent



We all want our people to do solid, competent work. We also want them to work quickly, without having to think extensively each time about what it is that they’re doing. In other words, we want them to develop to a level of unconscious competence.

Researchers have identified four stages that people progress through as they develop skills in different areas. In stage one, individuals are unaware of how little they know about their knowledge or skill deficits. They are unconscious of the scope of their incompetence and are consequently unlikely to take meaningful action to increase their capacity.

In stage two, they begin to recognize their incompetence and consciously acquire a skill, then intentionally use it; this last part is stage three. Eventually in stage four, the skill is used without it being consciously considered. The individual at this point is said to have then acquired unconscious competence. 

Case in point. When COVID-19 hit, we needed to get our teachers quickly to level or proficiency and comfort to work their educational magic remotely. The problem was that so many teachers were in stage one. They were not at all ready for this transition, and did not even know what they would need to learn in order to become passable, let alone proficient.  

Let’s look at each of the four stages more carefully.

  1. Unconscious incompetence. In this first stage, the individual does not understand or know how to do something. Nor do they necessarily recognize the deficit; they may deny the usefulness of the skill altogether. To grow from this first stage, the individual must recognize their own incompetence, and the value of the new skill. The length of time an individual spends in this stage depends on the strength of the stimulus to learn and change the current reality.
  2. Conscious incompetence. Now that the individual recognizes the deficit, as well as the value of learning a new skill in addressing the deficit, we can say that he/she has moved to stage 2, even though  no additional understanding or knowledge has been achieved. Through much effort, and with inevitable mistakes along the way, learning begins to occur which will propel the individual to the next stage.
  3. Conscious competence. By now, the individual has developed basic competency in the new knowledge or skill. However, demonstrating such awareness and capacity requires purposeful concentration. It may need to be broken down into steps for the new skill to be effectively executed. 
  4. Unconscious competence. Finally, the individual has had so much practice with a skill that it has become “second nature.” It can be performed quickly and easily, without much thought. As a result, the skill can be performed while executing another task. The individual may be able to teach it to others, depending upon how and when it was learned.

 A common example of these four stages is learning to drive a vehicle. At first (stage one, unconscious incompetence,) the aspiring driver does not even realize how much he doesn’t know. He just thinks that driving is a simple, straightforward task. After coming to the realization that driving requires learning and skills development (stage two, conscious incompetence,) he begins to take lessons and learn more about the driving process.

After some study and practice (stage three, conscious competence,) the driver has developed the requisite skills. Still, he is mechanical in his approach and may need to use a checklist (real or mental) to ensure that no steps were missed. Finally (stage four, unconscious competence,) the driver is so skilled that he can engage in multitasking, such as conversing comfortably with others. His posture, demeanor, and tone of voice all speak to a more relaxed driver.

This same process applies to the classroom, virtual or physical. When teachers are asked to use new tools or processes, assume that many will go through the four-stage process before becoming comfortable and proficient. Give them the tools that they need and create an environment that allows them to move through the stages without feeling fundamentally deficient. Principals greatly influence school culture. Those who support ongoing learning as a critical element of staying current (if not ahead) at work and supply the necessary tools to grow, will keep the focus on moving people to new stages of growth and productivity.

Let’s return to our above example of remote learning. Teachers that (1) came to the swift recognition that they were in stage one, (2) were motivated (on their own or with principal assistance) to move quickly through the different stages, and (3) were empowered to grow through training and other resources provided to them, became very comfortable with the new technology and processes and were able to offer their students top-level instruction within a couple of weeks, if not sooner. Knowing what was at stake (student success, parental satisfaction, etc.) motivated many to take the needed steps to succeed.

Education is an ever-changing field. Though COVID-19 may (and hopefully will) be a once-in-a-century disruptor, we must remain nimble and vigilant to ensure that we always improve the quality of our work. Principals can help this effort by reminding their teachers (and themselves) that learning occurs through a predictable process and that, once we know that the learning is required, we can take purposeful, deliberate steps to bring our people to stage four, and provide competence (if not excellence) in a way that speaks to unconscious mastery. 

Naphtali Hoff, PsyD, (@impactfulcoach) is president of Impactful Coaching & Consulting. He is author of Becoming the New Boss and several free e-books including, Core Essentials of Leadership, The Impactful Productivity Blueprint, An E.P.I.C. Solution to Understaffing and How to Boost Your Leadership Impact.


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