Many years ago I discovered the concept of the conscious competence learning model. The model offers a simple explanation of how people learn and helps us as leaders consider a staged approach to staff development. The model is the same for any person, at any time of our lives, any stage of our career and is as relevant for practitioners as it is for leaders. When considering staff development it is worth considering where they are on the steps before deciding what you need to do to support them.
Stage one – Unconscious incompetence
At the start of our journey we are unconsciously incompetent: we do not know what we do not know. We need people around us to give us information, using our preferred learning style, to help us realise we are not doing something right. Sometimes the fear or inexperience of leadership means we do not want to tell someone they are doing something wrong, but it is our duty as leaders to help people recognise this and support them to learn how to do it well. If we use driving as an example, you would not expect someone to sit behind the wheel of a car for the first time and drive competently without any instruction and lots of lessons; driving schools would be out of business if this were the case. It is acceptable not to know how to drive and so we work with our instructor attentively until he/she has given us enough information, patience and practice so that we can.
This is the exact same principle we should consider when working with our practitioners: if someone does not know that you prefer your displays backed using mitre corners, or that the children’s work should be displayed as their own work, not neatly trimmed, how can you expect them to just do it? A member of staff may start at your setting and have previously undertaken work experience at a local school, have lots of younger family members, this does not mean they know how to be a childcare practitioner. Let’s face it, it is a complex business.
Stage two – Consciously incompetent
Taking into account your staff member’s preferred learning styles as discussed in Leadership Matters, you have let them know that they are doing something wrong. Now you have someone who is conscious they are incompetent at a certain task.
Using the driving analogy, it does not matter how many times we have been inside a car, we know we don’t know how to drive, we know we need to be taught. In the workplace we need skilful leaders to offer guidance, support, encouragement, patience and further information. The amount of time someone will spend at this stage will be as varied as every member of your team. Reflecting on their learning style you may consider the ways in which it would be helpful for them to receive information; watching someone, having a go, reading about it etc. During this phase it is vital that we reassure our staff that this is an ongoing process and that in time they will become competent if they stick with it and practice.
Stage three – Consciously competent
This is the awkward stage: the time with any new learning when we have to practice something new for the first time and it feels strange. Can you remember the first time you read a book to a group of children or the first singing session? I remember being beetroot red with embarrassment and feeling that every adult within a 2 mile radius was watching me. Using the driving example, this is the time we stall at the lights, particularly in peak hour traffic, our hands stay at 10 – 2 and we repeat out loud ‘mirror, signal, manoeuvre’. We have all been there and done that at some point, in fact every time we have gained a new skill, attended a new course, taken up a new hobby or moved into a new position.
A good leader will use this stage to make sure that the learning reflects the practice we want to see. Time invested with someone during this stage will be very worthwhile as the results will last a lifetime; 30 years on and I can still remember being trained in creating a display, it is sadly not covered during the course today.
As our skills develop and we become more practiced at something, we begin to see it working. Remember the feeling of driving the car for the first time without a kangaroo start? You feel all warm and fuzzy inside, ‘I can do it’. A practitioner who spots a problem, intervenes early, using positive behaviour techniques and stops the war zone that has taken place every afternoon this week will feel the same, ‘I did it, I can do it’. These moments need to be cherished and celebrated, as we do with children; we need to offer positive reinforcements for good practice.
Stage four – Unconsciously competent
As the years progress and we become more practiced and experienced in our role, the amount of thought process needed reduces until there are certain tasks we can do without thinking. We learn that even though we are playing bingo with a small group of children we need to be aware of what the others are doing and skilfully intervene if needed, we do not consciously go through the stages we have been taught before responding.
At this point we have passed our driving test, congratulations, and have been driving around for a few years, sometimes reaching our destination without being conscious of how we got there: we now drive in auto pilot. Then someone invents the hover car and the cycle begins again! New technologies, ways of thinking, ways of doing things, new frameworks, legislation etc could send us all back to the start of the process at any time.
We need to accept that people do not know what they do not know, you cannot jump from step one to four overnight and it is ok to be at whatever stage on the steps. So next time you wince as you look at the beautiful display that is completely incorrect consider ‘where are they on the steps and how can I support them to become unconsciously competent?’
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