Our NHS People

Levels of learning

Another way of thinking about learning is by considering the levels we can learn at. Are we looking for knowledge, for skills or something else. This short film looks at levels of learning in an even broader way.

I’m here today to talk a bit about learning what it is and how to go about it at different levels.

So, people come on to development programmes with different understandings of what learning actually is at different definitions. The most common really is around learning is about knowledge or possibly skill development but I think learning is a lot deeper and understanding how to go about learning at different levels will set people up, for the type of learning they need to do on whatever programme they’re on.

One model that’s useful to understand when it comes to learning at different levels is called psychological levels, we can look at different levels of the world in which we live and understand them in different ways. So, the basic level, the base level is the environmental level. What’s around us and how can we learn more about that. The question for learning there, is where or when does this thing happen?

The next level up would be around behaviour. So, how do I do different things? How do I operate myself in the world as a leader or as an influencer? What are the behavioural traits? And the question there is what, what’s going on?

Next level up is skills and capabilities. The question here is around how, how do I do this? How do I scale up? How do I develop capabilities as a leader of others?

Next level up is around beliefs and values. That’s about what I hold really dear, the values by which I operate, the beliefs and assumptions that I have and the key question here for learning is why, why is this important?

Next level up is around self, self-identity, self-esteem, my own self knowledge and my self awareness. Question here is who, who am I as a leader?

And the next level up is around spirit. How do I understand myself and the connection I have in the wider world in the universe in which I find myself? That’s about meaning, what’s really, really important to me in the world in which I live.

So, let’s dive in to some of those different levels and explore what learning might be like, how learning might be structured at each of the different levels. One of the easiest I guess to understand around learning is around skills and capabilities. This is where people, let’s say I don’t know what I don’t know. I am unconsciously incompetent and I become aware of something. I still can’t do it, I’m now consciously aware that I have no competence. I’m consciously incompetent. This is about like when you’re learning to drive, before you learn to drive you didn’t know that the clutch had a biting point. The first day you learn to drive, you now know the clutch has a biting point you also know- you can’t find it.

The next level up is about conscious competence, this is when you can do something but man it takes some effort. This is where people are learning to drive and you can see their lips move as they’re talking themselves through through every manoeuvre.

And the top level is around unconscious competence, I can do it and I’m not even thinking about it. One caveat, unconscious competence is where you get bad habits too. So, let’s dive into a different level, let’s dive into the level of behaviour and how do we develop different behaviours in learning. Well, one model for this it’s fairly well known is the learning cycle, first developed by David Kolb. People have an experience, we reflect on that experience and work out what was going on, we draw some theories or some models in our own head or maybe we look them up to find out how that experience was structured and then we make a plan to experiment to put that experience into into action again, moving all the way around the circle. One way of doing this, understanding this, is how we learn to ride a bike. We get on the bike, we fall off the bike and we work out actually going a bit faster helped me, that’s a bit of a theory. One point though is really important, you can’t really say you’ve learned how to do a new behaviour until you go all the way around the cycle at least one and a bit times. Having an experience and reflecting on it going badly and having an experience and reflecting on it going badly and having an experience and reflecting on it going badly, that’s not really learning. You may understand it better but you’re not any better at the behaviour.

So, let’s explore a different psychological level at which one can learn and look at beliefs and values. Now it’s easy to understand how we learn knowledge, skills, capabilities. How do we develop or learn beliefs or values? That’s a bit more complex, well, one way is around using presuppositions, it’s big word but it’s fairly simple it means I presuppose something to be true, I act as if it is. Let me give you an example: One presupposition that’s useful to play with is that feelings and behaviour are separate and then try that on for size and see how it feels. An example might be you get cut up on the motorway, you can have a feeling of rage, you can have a feeling of outrage, you can have a feeling of disappointment doesn’t mean to say that you have to act on it, you can choose to act separately. Alternatively, you can choose to put your foot down and nudge the car in front, I suggest you don’t.

So, let’s explore a different psychological level and learning at the level of self. One useful model for this is offered by the human potential movement, they talk about it starting with self-awareness, developing increasing understanding of what’s going on within me, in the here and now, my emotions, my thoughts in the here and now. The more my self-awareness grows the more I’ll be aware of what I’m like and that’s increasing self-knowledge, my strengths, my weaknesses, my patterns and habits. The more I know about myself, the more I’ll accept who I am. I’m not perfect, I’m flawed but that’s okay. The more I accept who I am, the greater my level of self-esteem will be. The more self-esteem I grow, then the more open and honest I could be because I’ll stop running defensive routines to pretend that something else is going on in a way of denial. The more open and honest I can be with myself and other people, the more I can achieve my full potential. Exploring development at the level of self, one other useful model is Piaget’s development theory, originally developed around children but absolutely applicable to adult learning too. Piaget talked about assimilation. So, taking stuff into us that fits our model of the world, building an increasing database. Indeed a database is a really good metaphor for this. It’s a bit like I’ve got some fields… Mr/Mrs, Address, that sort of thing, and people say; “Who are you?” And I say; “I’m Mr. Chris Lake and I live in Brighton.” That’s assimilation, I fill up the fields. However, he also talked about accommodation when we’re confronted with information that doesn’t fit us we haven’t got a place for it, so I asked somebody. “Who are you?” and they say. “I’m Professor” and I go. “Oh, I haven’t got a Mr. or Mrs. Haven’t got the field, I’m going to have to build a new field in my database. And where do you live? What’s your street name?” When they say. “Home Farm.” And I say. “Oh, what street is that?” They go. “There isn’t a street, what is it you don’t understand about farms they’re in the middle of a field.” So, I have to change my understanding of the world and indeed change the shape of who I am to accommodate the information, and on learning programs you’ll have to do both, you’ll have to assimilate new knowledge but also change the shape of who you are to accommodate knowledge that doesn’t fit.

So, we’ve had a brief look at psychological levels and used that model to understand structures of learning, what might work and not work at different levels. However, I guess the real question for you is. How are you going to use this to learn really effectively from this programme? Maybe for you the right thing to do, is to understand skills and capabilities to develop things that could make you even better as a leader than you are already, or maybe it’s about self, maybe the programme for you will add real value as an introspective look asking questions like. Who am I? How do I operate? How can I do what I do, even better than I am? Maybe it’s about beliefs and values, maybe trying on for size some beliefs or values that are a little bit uncomfortable just to see what that does to your leadership practice, or actually it’s maybe about becoming increasingly aware of your leadership behaviour, the shorthand question for that one is. What’s it like to be on the receiving end of you? I really hope you have a fabulous programme, that it gives you what you need and that the people that you work alongside can recognise the differences that you make in your leadership practice as a result of this programme.