What You Never Learned in School About Learning

by Shana Montesol Johnson

Ah, September.  In Manila, Philippines, where I live, September signals the start of Christmas season — believe it or not!  Holiday tunes can be heard on the radio, and stores start putting out their Christmas displays.

For those living in North America, or expats with kids in international schools, September means back to school season  — a time that elicits groans from kids, and cheers from their parents.  And even for those of us who have been out of school for decades, it’s a time of year when we think about learning.

“Learning new things” is one of the elements that many people cite as their favorite part of their work.  Indeed, author Daniel Pink cites mastery, “the desire to get better and better at something that matters,” as one of the three main drivers of human motivation.  No wonder we find it fun, fulfilling, and meaningful.

But learning new skills, behaviors, or techniques is not effortless. It can be frustrating, sometimes painfully so. And the frustration stems not only from our “aptitude” for learning, or a lack thereof.  It has to do with how we humans go through the learning process, which is succinctly captured in the “conscious competence model.”


The model defines four stages of learning:


You don’t know what you don’t know.  At this stage, you don’t even think there is anything you need to learn, so you aren’t very open to learning.  You’re pretty much blissfully ignorant.


You become aware of what you don’t know — often painfully so.  This typically occurs as you begin to explore a new area, skill, or behavior that was previously unfamiliar.  You may feel overwhelmed by all that you have yet to grasp or master.


You can perform the skill, but only with great effort, concentration, and intention.   You may feel exhilarated that you are finally doing this new thing, or self-conscious and exhausted from all the effort it takes to do so.


You perform the skill without even giving it a second thought.  You are on auto-pilot when you engage in this activity, in the zone, perhaps even zoning out.  Over time, you may even find it hard to explain to others how to do it — it just comes naturally to you.


How do we apply these concepts to learning in the workplace?   You may be the one learning a new skill.  How can you support your own learning?  In other cases, it may be a colleague who must learn something new; or, if you’re a manager, you may need to support a staff member’s learning.  Here are some ideas of actions you can take at each stage of the learning process:


So the next time you are trying to learn a new skill, or are encouraging someone on your team to do so, take a moment to examine what stage you, or they, are in. It could mean the difference between blissful ignorance (Stage 1) and being in the zone (Stage 4).


How about you?  What are you learning on the job these days?  Please share in the comments section below.



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