The Five Stages of Learning

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We just completed our semi-annual performance review cycle at ModCloth. In many of my discussions delivering the reviews we discussed learning. In each case I shared a pearl of wisdom taught to me by an adviser in college while I was studying physics:

You don’t really learn physics until you teach it.

Philip Macklin Miami University

After sharing this I encouraged my team members to be more proactive about mentoring. The hypothesis being they would become better engineers through teaching and truly learning their craft.

This got me thinking about how we really learn. Not the actual mechanics of basic learning mind you. Those are done by reading books, taking classes or whatever serves as the tool for delivering the necessary content. Rather, I have been asking myself what does the process look like? How do we go from beginner to expert? What does experience have to do with learning?

As a disclaimer remember I am not a psychologist or a trained professional educator, however I listened to a Ted talk so clearly I am an expert. Kidding aside, I have come up with a phenomenological model for learning. The crux of the model is that learning occurs in incremental, logical stages.

Stage 1 - You Don’t Know Anything

In the initial stage there is the realization that you do not have knowledge in a particular area creating the necessity to learn. This serves as the impetus for what I am calling mechanical learning. You pick up a book to learn a new program language or how to prevent your young child from having meltdowns. The latter of course is impossible, but the point of this stage is that without this realization, you are unable to start the journey.

Stage 2 - You Think You Know Everything

Upon completing the educational work there is a euphoria that comes with the misconception that you know everything you just studied. You then set out to immediately apply it. We have all been in this stage and unfortunately it can lead to disastrous results. Ever worked for first time manager who read something out of a book? Even worse, have you been that manager? Have you committed to using the latest and greatest in programming or applications? How did that work out?

Stage 3 - You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know

This is where you realize how clueless you are using your newfound knowledge. The phrase theory versus practice starts to mean more to you. You realize it goes deeper and that you might have a blind spot in your knowledge. Of all of the levels this is the hardest to achieve because of the psychological barrier to admitting you don’t know everything.

Stage 4 - You Know What You Don’t Know

The blind spots have finally been discovered during this stage. This allows you to now plan for attaining the full knowledge that is necessary. Gaining experience is what this stage is really all about. It is a great leap and takes the longest to achieve based on the “90/10” rule:

It takes 10% of the time to get to 90% complete, but 90% of the time to get the last 10%.

The experience factor reminds me of another quote from that same adviser. He once helped me solve a hypergeometric differential equation. Astounded, I asked him how he knew what to do generating the following reply:

You learn a few tricks when you have been doing this as long as I have.

Philip Macklin

There in lies the key to this stage - gaining experience.

Stage 5 - You Now Know It and Can Teach It

The final test that you really have learned something is can you teach it to someone else? I don’t mean just telling them about a resource to learn from or assisting in the mechanical aspect. Rather, can you really understand their problem and answer their questions effectively? Do you have the ability to guide them to the solution without just giving away the answer? Will you be able to share your insight so that they can go through the same stages you have?

Wrapping Up

Like I said this was not meant to be an exhaustive thesis on learning. Instead it is a model that I came up with based on my own experience. In my own life I have had several moments where I get to the various stages and realize I have more to learn.

Recapping, we have the Five Stages of Learning:

  1. You Don’t Know Anything
  2. You Think You Know Everything
  3. You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know
  4. You Now Know What You Don’t Know
  5. You Know It and Can Teach it