Adult Learning: Unconscious incompetence to conscious excellence?

CEDR’s mission is to inspire business to use mediation when managing and resolving disputes.  A large part of this is ensuring that mediators are trained to a standard of excellence.  Understanding how adults learn is key to learning transfer, skill acquisition and ultimately effective mediation training.  Adults learn better by doing rather than just seeing or as pioneering adult educator Malcolm Knowles explained (quoting Linderman), “adults were not just grown-up children, that they learned best when they were actively involved in determining what, how, and when they learned” (1996).  When describing the stages of learning to mediators-in-training on CEDR’s training courses, I often describe the four stages of competence, popularised by psychologist Thomas Gordon:  Unconscious incompetence; conscious incompetence; conscious competence; and unconscious competence.  This model suggests that in acquiring a skill, individuals are often unaware or do not recognise the lack of skills through to the fourth stage which suggests that the skill has become second nature.  There are feedback loops between the categories and when mastery of new skills are being developed, this often leads to being exposed to new techniques and advanced skills previously not considered.

Interestingly, a new stage has emerged over the past few years about the idea of conscious excellence – the idea of being aware and alert to what one is doing and improving elements of your performance.  Incidentally, it was brought to my attention by a Police Crisis Negotiator who was undertaking CEDR’s Mediation Skills Training. The analogy he used was of a police driver whose skills have been honed to be unconsciously competent. However, in high speed pursuits, on top of their conscious competence, there is an element of alertness and aware of what they are doing which brings them into the realm of conscious excellence.  After which, the driver would consciously deconstruct elements of performance.  Linking this analogy to mediation training, it is the role of mediation trainers to guide trainee mediators through these stages of learning being attuned to the dangers of over-conscious incompetence, the comfort zone of unconscious competence and striving towards conscious excellence.  In order to do this, I place a significant emphasis on role-play exercises and practice, practice and more practice AND a key element that should never be overlooked, reflection.

Adults learn better when doing: but never be too busy ‘doing’ or ‘comfortable’ to ignore the value in reflection.  As to level 5 and conscious excellence…maybe some more reflection is required…

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