The Four Stages of Learning

The four stages of learning have been described in many different ways but my own version of this is as follows:

  • Stage 1. You don’t know that you don’t know
    In this stage you are so incompetent that you are unable to recognise your own inadequacies. Because you don’t realise that you know so little you are unable to be taught. You think you know it all. (This has been called the Dunning-Kruger effect).
  • Stage 2. You know that you don’t know
    You realise that you don’t know it all and you can start to learn.
  • Stage 3. You don’t know that you know
    At some period you come to stage where you become quite competent but don’t realise it. You know a lot but retain a humility and can still learn.
  • Stage 4. You know that you know
    Sometimes you move to a point where you know it all and you know you know it. You can’t be taught and if it sets in there is an arrogance.

This process can be seen when you start a new job. At first it seems as if everything is unfamiliar to you. There are no patterns that have been established from experience. It may be that you think the patterns you have developed in the past apply to this new situation or you may attempt to apply previous patterns to a new situation where it is inappropriate. If you persist in using them and they don’t work you are effectively suffering from a form of anosognosia. This is stage one of the four stages of learning. Some people never develop beyond this stage.

After you have been in the job for a while you start to realise that maybe you are not as wonderful as you thought you were. You have moved onto stage two of the four stages. In this stage you start to establish new left-hemisphere patterns which you can apply. Sometimes situations arise where you find that the patterns you have established don’t work and you have to ask someone what you should do. You are establishing new patterns.

After some time the patterns that you have established work most of the time. You become good at your job but you still retain the ability to learn new patterns. You have moved into stage three.

In stage four and after using the left-brain patterns for too long, the right-brain atrophies. You lose the ability to think about things in a fresh way.

The salesman

This is an example of how the four stages work with John, who has just graduated from university with a marketing degree and is starting his first job selling data signal bandwidth over fibre optic cables.

  • Stage 1
    He knows nothing of the technical details of data or fibre optics but knows a lot about how to sell. He gets his first lead and remembers the basic rules:
  • Find what the user wants,
    Explain how the product will meet requirements,
    Get a signature on the contract.
    He talks to the customer and builds a rapport. The customer wants to buy from him but has some quite specific technical requirements. John knows that the products are configurable so simply tells the clients that the product will do the job when configured correctly. The customer seems unsure but John is very persuasive so the customer signs up.
    When John returns to the office, very pleased with himself, there is a huge ruckus. The customer was eager to sign because the product he sold him was one-tenth the cost of a competing product. It is completely incapable of handling the capacity that the customer wants.
    John is at stage one. He dosen’t know that he doesnʼt know. He has applied patterns that he learned at university that were inappropriate in this sales role.
  • Stage 2
    John has been given a minder. An experienced salesman who guides him through the process and ensures that he checks each requirement rigorously. John knows that he doesnʼt know and needs to learn. As he learns he builds up left hemisphere patterns that he can apply to new situations.
  • Stage 3
    John uses his minder much less but still considers he is not as good as the other salesman even though some months he exceeds their sales figures. He feels that the other salesman are natural; they seem to do the job effortlessly whereas John feels he still has to work hard to achieve results. He has developed the left brain patterns but still uses his right brain to monitor the patterns to ensure they are appropriate.
  • Stage 4
    After some years John is the senior salesman. He mentors other salesman but the company sees him as a bit anachronistic. He thinks he knows it all but hasnʼt kept up with new developments. His left brain simply applies patterns to every situation and his right brain has started to atrophy through lack of use. He is bored with work and has become boring and a cynic. He feels he has seen it all and there is nothing new. In one sense, gone full circle. He has learned patterns and now applies them but sometimes inappropriately.

She doesn’t know that she knows

I recently heard an interview with a Hollywood actress, I think it was Jodie Foster, who remarked that she didn’t think she was very good and had to try hard to keep up with her peers.

The ancient Greek philosopher Plato (writing about Socrates) once said that he knew nothing but was wiser than the other citizens of Athens because he knew he knew nothing and therefore could learn. This is a level of awareness and it’s only at this stage that someone can improve. When someone is unaware of their ignorance they see no need to learn, and because they are acting automatically, they have no incentive.

This is tied in with humility. When Jodie Foster says she thinks she is not a very good actress, this is a kind of humility (rare in Hollywood!) and unless you have this it is impossible to learn. Unfortunately, it is not an attitude that is encouraged in Western society.

I’m often surprised by how incompetent many well-known Hollywood ‘stars’ are. Actors with no ability to express emotions who, in practice, simply play themselves are lauded. Unfortunately this is common in many areas. I’ve come across many inept computer consultants who charge huge amounts of money for their ‘services’. The problem is that the people paying the money are often not in a good position to sort the wheat from the chaff, which is why many computer projects go severely over budget.

Of course, Jodie Foster is an actress and maybe one of the indications of a good actress is that they can feign humility.

“The secret of acting is sincerity. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” — George Burns

The four stages of learning in relationships

These four stages don’t just apply to jobs. They apply to just about every aspect of our lives. In a relationship, for example, the man may use patterns he has established with his friends. Burping, farting and telling dirty jokes worked when he was with them and some men assume this will impress a woman.

Usually (but unfortunately not always) he moves on to stage two and realises that he has to learn new behaviour if he is going to keep his girlfriend. He learns to respond in a different way when with her. He either genuinely becomes interested in what she says or he learns to fake it. There is a feeling of being in unknown territory. He knows he doesn’t know.

After some time of marriage he becomes quite adroit at learning how to respond. In some cases there is a genuine interest, in others he has learned to say certain things, sometimes with no idea why a particular response works. This works both ways. Both partners learn responses that become automatic.

And so the couple move onto stage four. They are in a rut. There is no real communication because there is no real listening. There is simply a series of automated responses. Sometimes these responses may be quite destructive. One partner makes a critical comment and the other responds automatically, then the first partner responds back and within no time there is a full blown argument. The fly on the wall (or the children if this is done in front of them, as it is too often), can see, even before the first person opens their mouth, how the situation is going to pan out. Unfortunately the players are ruled by their left hemisphere programs and because their right hemisphere ‘devils advocate’ has atrophied, they are unable to intercept the process.

The way to prevent this is to use the right brain even when we have patterns that we think will work. We have to be like children and play. If, for example, you find yourself in the situation I described with the married couple, you have to change your response. You can’t directly change your partner but if you change the way you respond then they are forced to change. They are used to ‘pressing your buttons’. They say something that, from experience, they have found causes you to react in a particular way. So don’t react in that way, instead react in an unpredictable way and so your partner is forced out of their left hemisphere groove and has to apply their right hemisphere thinking. This often produces confusion, and confusion is the state where we don’t have established left- hemisphere patterns that we can automatically apply to a situation.

If you don’t know what to do that is different then do the opposite of what you have always done. This may not work either but it allows you to explore new possibilities. Of course there is never one opposite. For example consider the following (not uncommon) scenario:

Husband and wife argue over housework. She stays at home and looks after the two young children. It’s hard work running after them, cleaning, preparing meals. The husband comes back from work in the evening and gets angry because the house is untidy and his dinner is not ready and on the table. He’s had a hard day at work and simply wants to rest in front of the television. She wants him to help around the house and gets annoyed when there’s so much to do and all he does is lounge around.

She feels that he is lazy and should help around the house, and that he doesn’t appreciate how difficult her job is. He feels that they both have their jobs. His is at work earning money for the family whilst hers is looking after the house and children. He feels he does his side of the bargain and she should be able to do hers.

As soon as he comes in through the door she nags, and the more she nags the more he wants to retreat into the television or his computer games.

Neither strategy is working.

From her perspective, try doing the opposite. For instance, when he comes in get him a beer or whatever it is he likes to do. Take five minutes out of the day and talk about his day. Then channels of communication have been opened up and he may be sympathetic to listening to you and the issues you have. Get into the spirit of playing with him to find what works. Stroking his ego, flattery, sex. Sometimes women have said to me that they shouldn’t need to do this because the husband should simply see what needs doing and do it. I tell them that that’s the way the world is. It is as it is, not as you want it to be. The husband may be genuinely worn out. He has been working all day as well.

From his perspective, instead of running away when she nags, stop and listen. You may think you have heard it all before but you probably didn’t really listen. Be sympathetic. You may think her problems are trivial but you aren’t in her position. She is a human being, your wife, who is crying out for help. Be there for her.

By Philip Braham on July 22, 2018 



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