Phases of Learning

A common method of explaining the process of learning a skill is the four phases of learning:

  1. Unconscious incompetence
  2. Conscious incompetence
  3. Conscious competence
  4. Unconscious competence

The model is a good launching point for understanding the progress to learning physical and movement based skills. 

When you first learn a movement skill, you may feel awkward or incapable of performing the movements.  Your body may not yet have the coordination or sometimes you may not even be firing the correct muscles to manifest correct movement.  The more unfamiliar the movement patterns are, the more awkward training the movement skill is going to feel.  In our relatively sedentary modern society, people just don’t move as much as they should.  As a consequence, it’s common for many movement patterns to be unfamiliar and for movement patterns to have some degree of dysfunction.

Before the movement skill training can begin, poor movement patterns have to be corrected.  Practitioners must recognize (or have pointed out) the dysfunctions in their movement patterns.  At this first phase of training, recognition of what needs to be fixed is crucial.  Without recognition of a difference between proper functional movement and poor dysfunctional movement, the practitioner has no feedback or metric for training and cannot improve.

Once the recognition of the poor movement pattern is in place, the work of improving movement ability can begin.  The practitioner learns what needs to be done to fix the movement dysfunction.  The corrections can come from self-learning, instruction, coaching tips, etc.  At this phase, the practitioner learns the body awareness, joint proprioception, body control, joint coordinatioon, and proper muscle activation patterns needed to establish functional movement ability.

By the third phase of learning, the practitioner understands the movement issues and knows what needs to be done to train the movement ability.  The movement ability can actually be manifested, but only with a great deal of mental concentration on maintaining proper movement.  Over time, the movement ability begins to take less and less explicit mental focus to maintain, and eventually the fourth stage of learning is achieved.  In the final stage of learning, the movement ability takes very little mental concentration to perform.  By this stage, the movement skill is under the practitioner’s control and can manifest more readily. (note: the choice of “unconscious” competence is a suboptimal terminology choice.  The skill should always be under conscious control and not a purely unconscious reflexive reponsive.)

In terms of studying I-Liq Chuan, we can observe a similar progression in training the art. New ILC practitioners first recognize their structure and movement pattern issues and then learn to use the 13 points to unify the body.  Movement is trained with mindful attention to the 13 points until unified body structure and movement can be produced.  Once proficiency is obtained with the 13 points and body unification is achieved, the learning process can be applied to manifesting the 5 qualities of movement.

The learning process continues for every sub-skill.  The goal of the training process is to obtain baseline proficiency in all the sub-skills of the art so that training of the art itself can progress.  Ideally, we would reach the fourth stage of learning for all of sub-skills at once.  Once the fourth stage is reached for all the sub-skills, training is for pure mastery of the art.  Until that point is reached, we can progress our training at least until the the third phase of learning so that we can see how to approach proficiency at the overall art and not just hone individual skills.