The Four Stages of Learning: They’re a Circle, Not a Straight Line

Summer is upon us, and along with the sun and pool time and vacation time come multiple opportunities to conveniently forget things we’ve already learned. Take, for instance, a trip to the fair.

Here in San Diego, the county fair is notorious for introducing new and unique foods each year—most of them ingenious ways (or disgusting ones, depending on how you look at it) to consume a full day’s allotment of sugar, fat, and calories in one sitting.

In 2016, just a few of the newcomers were:

  • French Toast Bacon Bombs
  • Lasagna Sandwiches
  • Deep-Fried Cookie Butter
  • Deep-Fried Pizza
  • Bacon-Wrapped Baked Potatoes
  • Grilled Cheese Waffles & Chicken

What, exactly, does this have to do with learning? Come, traipse with me through a wonderland of cotton candy, hot pretzels, fried lemonade (yes), chocolate-covered bacon, Krispy Kreme chicken sandwiches, and deep-fried nachos. Let’s learn.

The Four Stages of Learning A Skill*:

Stage 1: Unconsciously Unskilled

In Stage 1, we don’t know what we don’t know.

fair-leadership-trainingThe last time I can say I was honestly this naïve about what I shouldn’t put in my mouth was 1991, during the low-carb craze. I was in my 20s, and for the very first time, I got serious about taking off weight. And I tried nearly everything. Counting calories, exercise…nothing happened. Then I (and nearly everybody else at the time) stumbled across the Atkins diet and learned something new; carbohydrates and my metabolism were not friends. It turned out that 1200 calories made up of rice and bread and sugar and granola might affect me differently than 1200 calories made up of meat and vegetables and eggs! Apparently it was possible that I’d been going about feeding my body completely wrong.

In terms of weight management, that was the end of my visit to Stage 1; the rest of the cycle of learning may go ‘round and ‘round, but you can never go back to unconsciousness again.

(I’ve never had the luxury of visiting the Fair in Stage 1, but I actually kind of envy those who have!)

Stage 2: Consciously Unskilled

In Stage 2, we know what we don’t know, and we start to learn, because a sudden realization about how badly we’ve been doing shows us how much we need to.

I’d like to say I hopped right on the low-carb bandwagon, but I didn’t. Not right away. The person who did was my husband, who was 6’2” and at that point tipping the scales at 240. He hit the steak and the eggs and the salads and the coffee, hard. Within a week, he’d lost eight pounds.

Well, holy smokes.

Yeah. I wanted some of that action.

I still wanted bread, though. Man, I lived for bread. And rice. And pasta. And muffins…and…oh, no, don’t tell me I’d have to give up so much of my comfort food…really?

The mourning period lasted about a day. And then I made the leap.

Stage 3: Consciously Skilled.

In Stage 3, we are trying out the new skill—practicing, becoming more familiar with it, starting to get our sea legs, as it were.

My first year of eating low-carb was basically a year of carrying around a fat 4.5” x 8” book of foods that listed the carb counts of nearly every single thing you could possibly put in your mouth. The long and short of it was, I had a quota for the day, and I couldn’t go over it. I spent nearly twelve months looking up foods, carb counts and portion sizes, doing mental math, sometimes taking actual notes, and when I’d hit my limit, that was that. No more fruit for the day (sugar is a carb, and fruit has sugar in it). I’d switch to lunch meat or hard boiled eggs. I also became a bit of a kitchen alchemist, trying to figure out how to make fake pancakes or muffins or other starch substitutes with Atkins “baking mix” (don’t try this at home—no, really, don’t. They were…um…not good).

I did visit the County Fair one year in Stage 2. It was 1992. I was visiting my Mom during the summer. And you know what? I made it! Three words: Giant. Turkey. Leg. All protein, no carbs, satisfaction for days, no carb counting required.

Stage 4. Unconsciously Skilled.

In Stage 4, after a long period of practice, we’ve mastered the skill. It’s internalized. We don’t have to think about it anymore. It’s become a part of everyday behavior—one might even say a habit. Until…

The dog-eared book of carb counts went away in a pile of donations to some charity or another when I moved to another city in the late 90s. I’d lost more than thirty pounds with the new way of eating I’d learned and internalized. Steak, chicken, fish, pork, tofu, eggs, veggies, and even fruit had become the backbone of my diet. Processed foods were gone. Man, I had this thing nailed.
Then the funniest thing happened.
New city. New job. New stresses. No time to cook. No time to think. No time to deal. Husband in a doctoral program. Me, the only source of support. Yeah, I’ll take the linguine. Sure, I’ll order the mashed potatoes on the side, just this once. OK, sure, let’s go to McDonald’s for lunch, work friends!
Ounce by ounce. Month by month. Pound by pound. Year by year. Size by size.

I hadn’t un-learned the skills.

I’d just stopped using them.

Which brings me to my visit to the Fair this year.

I’ve gone through Stages 2, 3, and 4 of the Four Stages of learning at least three times in my adult life now when it comes to weight management. This year, I was firmly in  Stage 4. Sure, I looked longingly at the chocolate-dipped cinnamon rolls.

But I got the turkey leg.

(OK. And I also got a small basket of chocolate chip cookies. And two milks. I shared with Mom. We ate about half of them and threw the rest away. All things in moderation. )

The Takeaway

What’s the lesson here for leaders? Well, for one thing, you know all the versions of conventional wisdom that float around out there saying it takes XX days to build a new habit? Well, if the skills you learned in your leadership training workshop didn’t stick stick for you in 30 or 90 or 120 days, that’s fine. New skills may not take the first time around; that doesn’t mean you have to throw the whole effort out the window. Remember: you never, ever, ever go back to Stage 1! And that’s fantastic news.
For another, learning to paraphrase, how not to own every problem that comes your way, communicate, Active Listen, summarize, confront, express feelings with I-Messages, respond to challenges non-defensively, clarify and ask for clarification, and improve relationships in the workplace? They’re really not any more difficult than learning a different way of eating. They may feel impossible and uncomfortable in the beginning; you may find yourself referring to your reference materials a lot as you move through Stages 2 and 3. But eventually you’ll find your way to Stage 4.

And if you find you’ve fallen off the wagon, now you know—you can always get back on again.

The Learning Stages aren’t a Line. They’re a Circle.

Happy Summer.

* “The Learning Stages” were created by Mr. Noel Burch, co-author with Thomas Gordon of the Teacher Effectiveness Trainingbook, 1974.

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