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The Five Stages of Mastery Learning

Lately I have been thinking about how flipped learning, mastery learning, and competency based learning (CBL) intersect. I believe that implementing a Flipped Mastery approach is a practical way to personalize learning for each kid. I, along with Aaron Sams, pioneered this model in our high school science classes in 2008 and it was the single best thing I ever did as a teacher. In my twenty four years as a classroom teacher I saw many trends and fads come and go, but when I gave students more control over their learning and allowed them to learn at a flexible pace my world was rocked.

Mastery learning is not a complex idea. In a mastery learning environment, students are expected to learn certain objectives, or competencies, and then they progress when they learn the competency.

While flying from Houston to Chicago I had the privilege of sitting next to  Dr. Ara Vaporciyan, a cardiovascular surgeon in Houston who trains future surgeons. Ara was reading a book about learning and we struck up a conversation. Our flight was delayed and then we were asked to disembark, and then we got a new plane. And what should have been a 2 ½ hour plane ride turned into five hours. During that conversation he introduced me to the Four Stages of Competence Model which. During that conversation, Ara shared with me the Four Stages of Competence model developed in the corporate training world. The model is generally attributed to Noel Burch from Gordon Training International in the 1970’s, though there is some conflict about who first originated the idea. It is my hope that this model should become part of the conversation in the Kindergarten through Higher Education World.

The Four Stages of Competence (Mastery)

One way to summarize the four stages is to think about the process of learning to drive:

Stage 1: Unconsciously Incompetent Non-driver
Stage 2: Consciously Incompetent Beginner
Stage 3: Consciously Competent Just Passed the Driving Test
Stage 4: Unconsciously Competent Driver who gets to work without remembering the drive*

*This analogy comes from Alan Chapman 

Stage 1: Unconsciously Incompetent

In this stage learners don’t know what they don’t know. During this stage it is the job of the teacher to get

Image: newdriverexpert.co.uk

Image: newdriverexpert.co.uk

learners to understand that they need to learn a specific skill or objective. Learners need to know why they should learn something. To use the driving analogy: Somebody has to want to learn how to drive before they enter into the journey of driving.

Stage 2: Consciously Incompetent

In this stage the learner is aware that they need to learn something. They know they are weak and need to learn. One of the reasons that much teaching fails is that many teachers assume their learners are at Stage 2 when in fact they are in Stage 1. I have seen this mistake in technology training of teachers. For too many years we have been showing teachers how to use technology and not telling them why they should use technology in learning. We have assumed they were in stage two when in fact they were still in stage one. This also happens with students. We have shown them why learning some concept is important and we jump to stage 2 too quickly.  Back to our driver example: The learner is just learning where the pedals are, what they do, the rules of the road, and they are overwhelmed with the task of driving.  

Stage 3: Consciously Competent

In this stage the learner understands the objective or can perform the selected skill, but it requires great concentration. Learners may still need a guided practice and the help. In this stage, learners can fall into the trap where they think they know how to do something but because they either have not practiced enough, or have some underlying gaps in their learning, they can make mistakes. In our driving analogy, the new driver can think they are really good and in fact can often be a danger on the road. Sadly, many new drivers are a hazard on the roads.

Stage 4: Unconsciously Competent

In this last stage, the learner has practiced the objective or skill and can do it almost automatically. The learning has become hard-wired into the person. My guess is that most of you reading this post drive to work and you are at stage 4. You went through the process and you don’t have to think about how to drive at all.

The Danger of Stage Four Learners and the need for a Fifth Stage

Their is a danger for educators if they are Stage 4 learners. The danger is that they understand the concept or skill so well that they have a hard time helping new learners move through the stages. Not every expert makes a good teacher. I remember a specific Physical Chemistry professor I had who was a well known researcher and yet he really struggled with communicating the basics with his students. My classmates and I needed somebody who could enter into our minds and help us move through the stages.

The Fifth Stage: Master TeacherMasterTeacher

Thus, the fifth stage is the master teacher. Some have called this stage Reflective Competence. This person recognizes which stage each learner is in and is able to help each learner move from stage one to stage four.The master teacher is able to personalize learning for each student.

I feel that this model has significant implications for K-16 learning. We fall into the two traps mentioned above. We assume that students are in stage 2 when if fact we have not done the hard work of giving students the why of learning. And the other mistake we make is that since we have become masters at our topics and are stage four learners, we fail to enter into the messiness of learning where students who are at varying stages.

What are your thoughts? How does the competence model help you to understand your students, your staff, or your own learning? Please comment below.
If you would like to learn more about the Four Stages of Competence model the best article I found was written by Allan Chapman and can be found here.  You may also want to read a good summary on the Wikipedia page.  

9 Responses

  1. Dena Leggett

    I learned those stages in leadership training back when I was a pastor. Really appreciated how you applied them to education. I especially like the “reflective completence” addition. Have forwarded to my principle – it would be a great conversation to have during an instructional focus meeting. Thanks!

  2. I love this summary, because it is so true that students need to understand the WHY (stage 1) before they can move to the HOW (stage 2). Unfortunately, I, like many teachers, innately see the why and often forget to explain it!!

    I have helped many teachers implement the mastery model and I think it is important to note that stage 2 is the hardest stage to overcome. Once a student begins to understand what they know and what they don’t know, it can be overwhelming to them and they often give up. Furthermore, great teachers hate to see their students struggle through stage 2 and want to rescue them. However, if students are given the opportunity to weed through the information and make mistakes, it is through the struggle that true learning occurs and the student develops the skills to become an independent learner.

    Although, I know it is important to communicate the WHY to keep the students motivated through stage 2 and 3, many times this is not enough. I am always looking for new ways to motivate the students in a flipped mastery course. Perhaps that could be the next blog! Thank you for the article Jon!

    1. Profile photo of Jon Bergmann

      Cara great words from a real teacher. Thanks for sharing. I agree that continuing to motivate students is just hard work. I do have some thoughts about this so I think I will take you up on this and write that blog post for next week.

    2. Great point Cara, I draw inspiration for my teaching by reading and listening to professional (and amateur) sports coaches. Of course I listen to teachers as well, but what I hear from coaches time and again is that their athletes need to have the WHY so they can understand the how and under what context to apply the instructions in a game context.

  3. Kristy Miller

    I love that corporate leadership training has tools that help us teach older kids who are transitioning to ‘adult learners’, and this model is a classic way to think about training and development. I really appreciate the idea that many older students also want and need to know the ‘why’ behind our lessons.

    I’ve been thinking a lot about the Creative Process lately and how it might be applied in adult settings, especially when so much leadership training is focused on collaboration. It seems to me that any model that identifies learning in ‘stages’ makes valuable contributions when we’re sharing existing meaning with our students and helping them discover what is already ‘known’.

    And, I’m intrigued by the idea that there are times when learning is about making collective meaning about what is NOT already known. This is where I think models like Bloom’s Taxonomy and the Four Stages, while certainly valuable, are limited. So, I wonder about the relationship between the learning models which present learning as a cycle or as a system (rather than a set of steps) and the models which present learning as a linear process.

    I especially think this is valuable when we consider that one of the ultimate goals of corporate training is profit acquisition. Making a profit is important in the day-to-day; however, it is distinct from the goal of exploring ideas and making meaning of those ideas with others to gain wisdom. Thus, examining the stages and cycles…and the systems…. of learning seems to be important to a sustainable education.

    What impact would looking at the relationship between linear, cyclical, and systemic learning models have on our classrooms and on our instructional practices?

    1. Dan Sherman

      Thank you so much for the reflective comment above. I was thinking along the same lines about the motivation behind the Four Stages of competencies when it was first mentioned that it came from the corporate world. Not that I’m inclined to throw any babies out with the bath water, but profit motivations behind learning models must be considered and biases mitigated when their target is not the public increase of knowledge and wisdom.
      I’d also like to consider to learn more about the relative impacts of linear, cyclical and systemic learning models on instructional practices.

  4. Joanne Ward

    This is a good reminder for me as a teacher. I need to keep this in mind. I love the five stages. They serves as the protocol for me to identify my students in their learning stages.

  5. Kristy Miller

    Hi again,

    Sorry for the delay in responding. Here is an article I just found: The Role of Positivity and Connectivity in the Performance of Business Teams: A Nonlinear Dynamics Model by Marcial Losada and Emily Heaphy. It was published in the American Behavioral Scientist Feb. 2004.

    I have only scanned it, but the first sentence introduces it as a response to ‘an explicit call for the use of non-linear models” and that these scholars are ‘especially interested in the nonlinear positive dynamics…that are frequently associated with positive organizational phenomena”.

    I know this was requested by OD scholars (not education scholars), but I’m wondering if there is some infrastructure that could translate to k-12 classrooms. The focus of the article seems to be on feedback cycles…so maybe the practical application resides in the ways we teach kids to give feedback to one another during group projects, in peer-to-peer learning, and as we consider flipping our classrooms?

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