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The Four Stages of Learning – and why frustration and struggling to grasp new techniques is good!

Learning a new skill, at whatever age, can be a hugely rewarding and fulfilling experience. Whether it’s learning to play an instrument, learning to drive, riding a bike, or (like those of us who have taken the plunge) practicing Martial Arts, the initial thrill and novelty of learning something new helps to build our confidence and motivation. Alongside the thrill of learning, however, there’s no doubt that a degree of frustration and negativity can start to creep in, which makes the learning process suddenly less appealing and more difficult.

Four sages of learning pyramid

Owning your mistakes graphic

Ironically, making a mistake and doing something incorrectly is a vital part of the learning process. Having an understanding of the different stages of learning can help us to overcome feelings of frustration when mistakes inevitably happen, and build our resilience when we’re faced with a learning challenge.

What are the Four Stage of Learning?

In the 1960’s a management trainer called Martin M. Broadwell developed the ‘Four Stages of Learning’ theory. His theory breaks the process of learning into four defined stages:


We don’t know what we don’t know.

At this stage of learning our level of confidence exceeds our level of ability. We are often keen to have a go, and try out a new skill, but initially we’re not able to recognise our own incompetence. We are blissfully ignorant about the intricacies of technique, for example, and we lack the skill and competence to be able to make progress by ourselves. This is why having a teacher who can demonstrate skills and explain what to do can help us to develop and to progress to the next stage of learning.


We know what we don’t know.

We can only arrive at this stage if we become aware of our level of incompetence. After the first period of learning, during which we make lots of mistakes, we suddenly arrive at the realisation that we know how much we don’t know. This is potentially a frustrating stage, however, as our confidence can plummet with the recognition that our ability is so limited. In class, for example, we can look towards our senior members and perhaps think “I’ll never be able to do that” or “I’m never going to be able to learn that Form”. We sometimes see students giving up at this stage, because the level of negativity and frustration with our lack of skill can be too overwhelming. With regular attendance at classes, however, and by the understanding that “practise makes progress”, we can gradually begin to develop our skills, and make improvements. The length of this stage, and the transition to the next, obviously depends on the individual student, how regularly they attend classes, and their unique skill set. With support in class, and by repeated practise, however, our skill level gradually increases and our confidence also begins to return.


We know what we don’t know.

At this stage of learning we have acquired some skills and with practise, drill and repetition we continue to improve and develop. With conscious effort and concentration, we now know what we should be doing, and we are able to do it with a reasonable level of accuracy and skill. Our conscious brain can only process a small amount of new information in one go, however, and at this stage, we can sometimes revert to stage one and two of the learning process if challenged by too much new learning in one go. Maintaining this level of learning requires continued effort and work. This is why we often see many of our senior students attending classes multiple times a week, and rarely skipping classes, as there is so much consolidation and repetition to be done to continue our development.


We don’t have to think about knowing it.

During this final stage, the thousands of hours of repetition and effort carried out over time means that performing the skill becomes second nature, and therefore it happens automatically at an unconscious level. We no longer have to consciously think about where to place our hands, for example, or which move comes next in the Form. It’s almost as if our body takes over our conscious mind, and our muscle memory takes charge (there’s a blog about muscle memory coming soon!). At this stage, our confidence and ability levels have merged, and are at their peak, leading to mastery of the skill.

Final thoughts

Working through the four stages of learning, and having an understanding of where we are in our own learning process, is hugely beneficial in helping us progress. If we can acknowledge and accept our frustration and our lack of skill, we can then become more patient with ourselves and increase our level of resilience. Viewing our mistakes as stepping stones along the learning path increases self-belief and an awareness that although we may be struggling to acquire a new skill, we can continue to work hard, practise and improve.

A black belt is a white belt that never quit graphic

The challenge of learning is to persevere through the difficult bits, and to view mistakes as opportunities for progress, rather than “failure”. Practise and repetition also help a long way in reinforcing what we know, and consolidating those skills. We often say in our Dojang that “a black belt is a white belt that never gave up”. Reaching Black Belt level is an important goal to have, however we know that the learning process never ends, and that there is always room for improvement and development.

Kyo Sa Nim Carol Plummer

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