Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.
– Socrates

The four stages of learning

Earlier this month I received an email from Henry who shared his experience learning Java and web programming. It was so inspiring I decided to interview him to learn more about his motivation and learning path. It made me think back to all of the times I learned something new and I saw similar patterns in my own learning. Mainly the struggle and feelings of failure.

I was curious if there was an official name for the stages of learning and came across the Four Stages of Competence, defined by Abraham Maslow. I simplified the naming to make it less academic.

  1. Unaware
    There is something new you should know but you are unaware of it. Some spark of motivation is necessary for you move to the next stage.
  2. Aware
    You are aware of something to learn and you begin researching. You gather tools to help you learn. Requires curiosity and goal setting.
  3. Practice
    You know a lot about the topic but you have a lot of questions and tons of mistakes. The mistakes make you feel like you don’t know much which isn’t the reality. Requires persistence to work through the struggle.
  4. Mastery
    Through repetition and multiple rounds of making mistakes, you establish confidence. You now understand the topic and it comes naturally to you without having to look things up.

Mistakes, Confusion, and Feelings of Failure

Something I found encouraging was the fact someone outlined how pain was normal in learning. For every stage there are periods of confusion and feelings of failure. The only difference is they should decrease in frequency over time. Knowing this up front will help you learn a new skill because you are prepared for it. You know it is just part of the process and will lessen over time.

I remember the moments early on when I had large knowledge gaps. One example of this is when I learned you could have multiple CSS classes on an element. I thought classes were like ID’s and you can only have one unique one per page. Learning that one idea opened a whole new world of possibilities.

It is embarrassing to tell you this story because you are probably thinking “How could you not know that?” But I have learned to ignore those feelings of inferiority and be bold in sharing the things you don’t know. The key is to always be open to learn something new. If you don’t know something or receive a negative critique, embrace it and see it as an opportunity to learn something new. We all have different levels of knowledge and understanding and that is why it is so important to help others graciously. 


Written by: Jacob Lett
Category: Articles
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