Envelope #22: Four (or five) stages of learning/competence

Happy Thursday! Welcome to Back of the Envelope - where I share SE-related stuff to help you become slightly smarter.

Here’s what we got today:

  1. Stages of learning

  2. A belated dad joke

(Estimated reading time = 3 minutes & 28 seconds)

Stages of Learning

This came up recently in a discussion: the topic of training and learning.

“How do we become better engineers?” “And how do we help others in our company to become better engineers?”

The discussion reminded me of a concept that I came across a while ago: the “four stages of learning” (or the “four stages of competence”).

It goes something like this:

  • Stage 1: Unconscious incompetence

  • Stage 2: Conscious incompetence

  • Stage 3: Conscious competence

  • Stage 4: Unconscious competence

Some suggest there should even be a Stage 5, and it’s a tongue twister:

Stage 5: “Conscious competence of unconscious competence.”

Let me explain.

1/ Unconscious incompetence

In this stage, you basically don’t know what you don’t yet know.

Remember back in college when you first learned how to analyze and design a beam for stress (or strength)?

Calculate the demand, calculate the capacity, rinse and repeat to find a size that works. Done!

What are we missing...? Deflection, connection, and detailing!

But you didn’t know it, yet.

Which leads to the second stage.

2/ Conscious incompetence

“How do I check for deflection?”

“How do I design for connections?”

“How do I detail everything?”

“What else don’t I know!?”

You become aware that tons of stuff are still to be learned. And you start exploring.

3/ Conscious competence

As you graduate and progress in your career, you become better at things.

You have high self-awareness and know precisely what you are good at (strengths) and not at (weaknesses).

You can design certain things faster and with accuracy; you can guide others because you’ve done it many times before.

4/ Unconscious competence

Now, at this stage, you’ve worked on many projects and spent years honing your craft. Lots of experiences under your belt.

When looking at a set of drawings, by intuition, you immediately know that “something doesn’t look right” or “something just works.”

Essentially, good engineering becomes your second nature.

5/ Conscious competence of unconscious competence

Finally, at this stage, not only are you aware of your own competence, but you are also able to recognize unconscious incompetence in others. This means you can help develop the skill deficiencies in others so they can move up the stages.

Why is this important?

Say that you are a senior engineer and have another (less experienced) engineer helping you on a project.

For any particular skill set: if you can identify which stage you are in and which stage your helper is in, both of you are more likely to benefit from the interaction.

The same is true if you are the trainee.

Here is another way to put it.

Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses. And everyone progresses through the stages differently. If neither you nor the person you are interacting with are aware of the stages, it will likely result in frustration and possibly resentment.

Let me give you an example.

I specifically remember in undergrad when we just barely learned the basics of concrete design.

Somehow the University invited a well-known structural engineer to give a few guest lectures.

I am not going to name the person, but this engineer had founded a company with multiple offices and had worked on tons of landmark projects.

So he came in and gave a lecture about… plastic hinges in concrete frames. (remember, we just recently learned how concrete beam works)

Not even describing the concept, he literally just wrote equations and numbers on the board, and then said something along the line of, “See? We can design a building very quickly by doing this. Here is some homework.”

No one in the class had any idea what was going on, and no one benefited from this lecture by a world-renowned structural engineer.

He was too good at what he does, and we weren’t ready yet.

He was unconsciously competent, while the rest of us were unconsciously incompetent. By not recognizing that and adjusting the lesson accordingly, everyone lost.

Action step

“Alrighty Andy, but how does that help me exactly?” You ask.

OK, try this.

As you go about your day designing stuff, checking other’s work, or responding to client/contractor questions, see if you can identify the other person’s competence stage as well as your own.

And then see if becoming aware changes your attitude and approach had you not known about it.

Hope that all makes sense. Let me know what you think!

Belated dad joke

In case you missed it, in the last email, I mentioned that I would try to include a joke here so that in case you don’t learn anything from these emails, at least you’ll get a quick laugh.

Well, last week, my kids told me that I really needed to stop telling Thanksgiving jokes immediately.

I tried, but I just couldn’t quit cold turkey 🦃.

Fine, I lied… it’s actually as easy as pie 🥧.

(Only one month left till 2023… can you believe it? Let’s make the best of it! 🥳)

And that’s all – thanks for reading!

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