The Four Levels of Competency and Learning- As They Relate To Survival- A Guest Post By Dave Holder

I had the absolute pleasure last year of meeting Dave Holder. Dave is an excellent instructor who holds a wealth of knowledge. Knowing this, I pestered him for a good few days to learn as much as I could before it was finally time for me to go home. Dave's patience and intellect are something I'll always look up to. 

Apparently my pestering didn't tick him off too badly, because he wrote this article for me to share with you all. 


"Learning and Teaching two areas that constantly make my life an interesting place. Sam mentioned in a previous article that we (humans) have only gotten "flabby" recently and we will probably never be as awesome as our ancestors; how true that statement may be. Anthropologists have proven that our brains have become smaller over the past 200,000 years modern man (homo sapien- 'wise man') is going through a rapid evolution not all of it good. Is our brain becoming smaller because we are using it less by choosing to store information online, or learn fewer skills? There are many theories on this, however I do find generally in my bushcraft students that there is quite often a level of resistance to practicing a skill to a level of complete accomplishment. Here is a section from a book I am writing -The Four Levels of Competency and Learning (Understanding what you do or don’t know)

It is critically important that you are aware of and can reflect on where you are in your skill set. Knowledge of your own ability not only helps gain yourself more confidence but also allows you to plan journeys into remote areas based on a true understanding of the skills you have at present. This could prevent you from embarking on a trip that has the potential to overly stretch your limited skill set and lead to a potential disaster.
To that end I will highlight the four stages of learning that typically apply to all of us when we are acquiring any new skill in life.

These are:

 Dave Holder instructing in Alberta, CANADA

Dave Holder instructing in Alberta, CANADA

1.Unconscious Incompetence

2. Conscious Incompetence

3. Conscious Competence

4. Unconscious Competence

Let’s explore what each of these stages mean and how they apply to a survival situation.

Unconscious Incompetence: it will never happen to me I know tons of stuff

Basically this stage can be defined, as “You don’t know that you don’t know”. 
This means that you are unaware that you don’t possess a skill, a mindset or ability. A good example of this is a five year old doesn’t know that he doesn’t know how to drive a car. In a survival situation, you may not even realize that something is very important for you to know until you come across a specific situation where you require a particular skill or even a mindset to deal with the situation at hand. The danger here is that if you don’t know that you don’t know something or don’t know how to do something, you will either remain unaware of it, or if you are aware of it, you may dismiss it as unimportant or unnecessary. This can be the most dangerous of the levels of competency, because it can induce complacency especially as it relates to a survival situation.

Conscious Incompetence: oh crap this is harder than I thought I really don’t know that much stuff after all

 Dave Holder demonstrating the twig bundle technique for fire starting

Dave Holder demonstrating the twig bundle technique for fire starting

This stage reveals what you were unaware of before where: “You do know what you don’t know”. 
You realize or are already well aware that you lack knowledge or ability. The circumstances can be either benign or risky. If you are learning to ski or drive a car (with an instructor) it is unlikely your life will be threatened. In a survival situation, however, things could be much more dire. If you have read about the skills and only tried them once or twice with or without success, this could prove disastrous. So conscious incompetence is a challenging stage for learning a skill, where you may fumble a great deal with the mechanics of that skill; or indeed may be unable to do it at all without help.


Conscious Competence: oh crap there is so much stuff to learn

This stage is what I like to refer to as the awkward stage. “You do know what you know.” 
You are now beginning to learn a skill, you know how to do it, but it doesn’t come easily, it requires a lot of conscious effort. In a survival situation this stage is far better than the others, but it is still not enough to ensure that your situation will improve or get you out of a sticky circumstance. This is where you need to ensure you place a lot of effort in practice to ensure you move onto the next stage. One danger here is where the person begins to learn the competency, and if it is skill based without enough practice, sometimes this can be the case of “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing”. You may just be starting to really get the skills, but they are not quite there yet, and you have the false illusion that you know it all.

Unconscious Competence: ok bring it on, yawn, now I can teach all this stuff to other people

This stage is where you can do it in your sleep. “You know.”
Not only are you proficient at your skill, but it happens without thinking. This only comes with a lot of practice. In a survival situation, especially when you are in a state of fear or even panic, your primitive brain kicks in and takes over. This part of your mindset will move automatically to do what you are most practiced at, and is worth it’s weight in gold for all the time and effort you put in.
But during this period, hopefully, you may also realize that you never stop learning!

-Dave Holder, Head Instructor at Mahikan Trails, Bushcraft Consultant"

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About Woodsong Founder Sam Larson

Sam is a writer, adventurer, and founder of Woodsong. In 2011 his practical experiences over many nights in remote wilderness areas inspired him to start this blog! Sam’s adventures have lead him throughout North America where he has had the opportunity to learn from world-class outdoorsmen, and perhaps the greatest teacher of all, the natural world.

Catch Sam this summer on HISTORY'S ALONE!

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