How Humans Learn

May 17, 2022

Driving a vehicle, throwing a football, baking Bananarama Chocolate Chip Muffins. . . nobody was born knowing how to do any of these things. It would be absurd and unfair to expect somebody who hasn’t gone through the process of learning each of these activities to be able to perform them expertly. The football will probably hit somebody in the face, the muffins will taste like dirt, and anybody sharing the road with the new driver would be advised to find the nearest detour. Fortunately, as a society we have agreed that most skills worth learning are worth the journey that an effective learning process requires. Of course, that journey of skill acquisition will look a little bit different for each person – and each skill – yet there are certain stages that apply universally. To begin with, we can’t help but to be Stage 1, which is known as Unconscious Incompetence. That means we don’t know how to perform a skill, and we aren’t even aware of it! This is nothing to be ashamed of though; it’s just our starting point. Next, we move into a Stage 2 called Conscious Incompetence. This is the stage where I’m currently at in my own Bananarama Chocolate Chip Muffin-baking journey; this stage is often the least fun, it’s where we are painfully aware of what we don’t yet know. Though often painful, this is a stage of growth, and it’s helpful to try to embrace it. As far as throwing a football is concerned, I’m actually at Stage 3, Conscious Competence. In this case, if I take my time and focus on what I’m doing, I can toss a passable spiral (at least if the intended target is nearby). But if I was asked to perform under pressure, or with 300lb behemoths trying to tackle me, I’d be in deep trouble! Finally, with enough practice, we can arrive at Stage 4: Unconscious Competence. Most readers have likely achieved this state with driving. It feels natural, as though we don’t need to consciously consider each action we take; it’s as though our body just knows. 

Stages of Learning



The bad news is: While we embrace the process of learning in many dimensions of life as a society, we often neglect the importance of applying that same learning process to psychological growth. It’s as though we expect that we can just start “being mindful,” effectively change the way we communicate with our partner, or become compassionate. Yet, it is just as unfair to expect that we will go from Stage 1 to Stage 4  when it comes to learning a new psychological skill as it is to expect that somebody who hasn’t learned to drive can safely handle a new Porsche on the highway. Sadly, this often results in shame and blame, frequently directed towards ourselves, and often followed by throwing our hands in the air and giving up, assuming that we just can’t do this. Rather than shame and blame ourselves, it can be helpful to compassionately reflect on what learning stage you’re at currently, then consider how you can gradually move toward the next stage of learning. For example, let’s imagine that you want to work on being able to communicate one of your needs – one that you feel hasn’t been being fulfilled – to your spouse. The good news is: The moment you are able and willing to acknowledge (even to yourself) that you are struggling to share your feelings, you have moved to Stage 2. Congratulations! But, beware of the temptation to now assume that you ought to jump immediately to Stage 4 – learning takes time, and we usually must pass through 3 to get to 4! In order to move into that 3rd Stage you may first need to learn some specific skills, that may involve being able to identify and express your emotions without criticizing, and may also involve making an uncomfortable request to your partner. The important thing to remember is that when you are practicing these skills, you can expect them to feel clunky, unnatural, even forced. And that’s to be expected; you are growing and developing a new skill. If it felt totally natural you wouldn’t have anything to learn! And now all that’s left to do, to be able to move into that 4th Stage where everything feels natural, is practice, practice, and more practice. Depending on the skill, it may only take a couple of conversations to feel comfortable with it, or it might take years to learn. Either way, to co-opt a Chinese proverb: The best time to start practicing was 20 years ago. The 2nd best time is now. Happy learning! Thrive Downtown offers individual counselling, couples counselling, career counselling, low cost counselling and psychedelic integration to support you through anxiety, depression, trauma and towards your best life.

Cam Wharram

Cam Wharram

Cam Wharram is a Registered Clinical Counsellor at Thrive Downtown with years of experience. He specializes in depression, anxiety, grief, inner child work, self-identity, self-esteem, psychedelic integration, and relationships. Offers various therapies and performance coaching. Schedule a video counselling consultation today.

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