Understand stages of adult learning. You will build new skills faster.
Photo by Christina Morillo
People say we are learning our whole life, but they don’t say how.
Children learn differently than adults. Adults are motivated if the material is practical. It must be beneficial for their work or private life. They need to oversee their learning.
Their active role is the main difference as children learn for the sake of learning.
We often train some colleagues on something at work. But most likely, we haven’t been ever trained on how to work with an adult audience. We are unaware of what knowledge people have. What do they need from training?
Attending meetings might not be efficient. Let’s look at one example.
Your boss gives you a task — do training about how to build a Power BI dashboard. Prepare a few slides and show a basic dashboard during the online training meeting you lead. This training task is done, and your boss is happy. You trained your colleagues on how to do it. Yet you receive many private questions and requests to help your team. Why is that?
If you are aware of the four stages of learning, you are not surprised.
The mapping is important
You can become a trainer, a knowledge manager, a leader of a transformation, or a change manager.
Great! Now, you should start wondering how you can help. Whenever you are in the position of teaching something, you must answer these questions:
Who is my audience?
What do they need? Why do they need to be trained or taught?
Why is it essential for them to have this knowledge? This skill?
What prior training do they have? How much do they know about the subject?
What is the timeline?
What do I need to teach?
What format does the task require?
To avoid confusion, try to understand the context as much as possible. If you are an internal trainer, it might be easy.
If you are an external trainer, you might need to dive deeper into the organization first to be helpful. Once you have all the necessary information, you can prepare yourself to teach others.
4 stages for learning any new skill
Noel Burch in the 1970s described a process of adult learning. As a trainer myself, I love this concept. It gives you a lot of flexibility on how to develop your training and work with the adult audience.
It works with consciousness and competency. The process chart is below:
By Ivona Hirschi adapted from Noel Burch
1. Unconscious Incompetent
This stage is happy. Adult learners don’t know what they don’t know. They work as usual, and it is working. At some point, some new skill is acquired.
Let’s take the example of using Microsoft Teams for project management. When doing project management, people were accustomed to communicating via emails. Now, their boss has asked them to start using Teams. This is the first time they have heard of it. The happy stage is over.
Magic window is a step towards learning. It is a challenge within a comfortable zone. Learning requires challenges. It drives innovation and growth.
Yet. An abrupt ending should not be followed by negative emotions. These are blocking the learning process. So, the best thing to do is to create conditions to motivate people to learn.
After the boss announced the new Team's communication plan, colleagues were shocked. They felt insecure. They did not understand why they had to do it. The old process was working "fine". The boss, however, knew that he needed to explain why it was critical.
He did at the all-staff meeting. He also hired a consultant to help with the transition and train people on how to use Teams. This wise decision made employees interested. So, they agreed to take part.
2. Conscious Incompetent
At this point, people realize what they don’t know. They become conscious of it. It is a difficult phase. People need to be open to learning, follow materials, practice, and be motivated to learn a new skill.
Team members met with the Team's expert for the first time. The boss told him that the company was traditional, and they had no experience with this way of working.
The trainer talked with employees about how they worked. In addition to asking them why they thought the new Team's process would be beneficial, he also asked what doubts they had. With that in mind, he showed them the platform and its functions. They were confused, as they realized just how much they needed to learn.
As homework, they were supposed to create an example team, a stream for finances, and use Teams to set up a meeting. Many questions flooded the trainer. They were not comfortable with it and asked for help.
They were conscious of their incompetence. For the expert, this was good ground. He understood these team members needed practical training, hands-on training, and support.
3. Conscious Competent
At this stage, people become competent. They can use a new skill and successfully perform it. But they are overly self-conscious about it. They know how to do it, but they doubt they do it correctly.
In our example, the team members were able to agree on how to set folders and streams for their projects. They knew the basic principles and were able to follow conversations. Nonetheless, they were conscious of not making any mistakes.
They checked several times that the folder was correct. They tested that they tagged the correct people and that the invite to the meeting was sent. The transition was slowly working. The updated way of communicating became more familiar to people. They started seeing its benefits.
So, they accepted Teams as their communication and project management tool. A workshop was designed by the expert to identify people's progress. The evaluation turned out well.
4. Unconscious Competent
The last stage is when a new skill is built. Adults know it well. They can use the skill without even thinking about it. There is not much training needed. At this stage, the skill is incorporated into everyday practice. People can teach others.
Our example company successfully moved from email communication to team communication. Employees used it for old and new projects and set new standards for their communication.
No one questioned it anymore. The knowledge was documented and used. The expert’s job was finished.
Adults should understand why new skills are needed and how they can help. That improves their motivation and learning hunger.
The learning conditions are key. PowerPoint presentations often don’t build new practical skills.
So, check what is needed, why, and how you can deliver it. The four stages should guide your learning process. The goal is to make people competent. This takes time. Learning has stages. It can take a bit longer to get some people to the competent phase. So, make sure they have a supportive environment.
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