What Are The Four Stages of Competence? The Four Stages of Competence In A Nutshell

The four stages of competence are often attributed to American psychologist Abraham Maslow. However, the concept was first mentioned by management consultant Martin W. Broadwell in 1969 to characterize four different types of teachers. Four years later, it was then incorporated into a life skills training course by Paul R. Curtiss and Phillip W. Warren. The four stages of competence is a psychological model describing the progression from incompetence to competence in a specific skill.

Understanding the four stages of competence

The four stages of competence as we know them today probably stem from a similar course developed by Noel Burch – a former employee of Gordon Training International. Burch argued that when an individual decides to learn a new skill, there are four learning stages they must transition through. 

With an awareness of each stage, the learner can come to terms with the long, slow, and sometimes painful process of learning. What’s more, teachers can use the model to identify learning needs and develop objectives based on which stage the learner occupies.

The four stages of competence

Let’s now take a look at each of the four stages:

  1. Unconscious incompetence (Ignorance) – here, the individual does not understand or know how to do something. They fail to recognize the utility of a new skill or their incompetence. In other words, they cannot see that a knowledge or skill gap exists. Progressing to the second stage requires the individual to acknowledge that there are some things they don’t yet know which could be useful to them.
  2. Conscious incompetence (Awareness) – in the second stage, the individual accepts a knowledge gap exists. This may be an uncomfortable experience for some people. To progress, the individual must recognize the value of a new skill and become motivated to learn.
  3. Conscious competence (Learning) – in the learning stage, the individual develops some degree of competency with disciplined concentration. The individual is a novice working toward skill acquisition with a focus on trial and error and continuous improvement. 
  4. Unconscious competence (Mastery) – over time, the individual becomes so adept at practicing a skill that it becomes second nature. While learning still occurs, the individual has established a strong foundation and is confident in their own abilities. In some cases, they may be able to teach the skill to others.

Key takeaways:

  • The four stages of competence is a psychological model describing the progression from incompetence to competence in a specific skill. The model is often attributed to Maslow but was developed by Martin W. Broadwell to categorize different types of teachers. 
  • The four stages of competence provide clarity for individuals engaged in the long, slow, and often painful learning process. It can also be used by teachers to assist in effective instructional design.
  • The four stages of competence are unconscious competence, conscious incompetence, conscious competence, and unconscious competence. The individual must move through each stage linearly and maintain a focus on growth and continuous improvement.

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Gennaro Cuofano

Gennaro is the creator of FourWeekMBA which reached over a million business students, executives, and aspiring entrepreneurs in 2020 alone | He is also Head of Business Development for a high-tech startup, which he helped grow at double-digit rate | Gennaro earned an International MBA with emphasis on Corporate Finance and Business Strategy | Visit The FourWeekMBA BizSchool | Or Get The FourWeekMBA Flagship Book "100+ Business Models"