Training, and how it relates to the Four Stages of Competence

Recently here at MVT there have been a number of posts that seek to explain training concepts in a way that will, we hope, lead to better understanding. This has been part of an ongoing advancement at classes in the language and technique of explanations to students. We have simply been improving the way we get this information across to people. Some of those posts were:

‘Gunfight Safety: How to not kill your Team/Family Members.’

‘Combat Safety: The Importance of ‘Short Bounds.”

‘First Sergeant Sends: You, Your Rifle and Ivan.’

Most recently at the Idaho class, I was having a discussion with Chris and he brought up the concept of ‘unconscious competence.’ This is important, and relates to the effectiveness of instructors who can teach, versus those who may be very effective operationally, but cannot teach it to others effectively. I was hit in the face by this a while back when teaching fire and movement, where I was asked the question of exactly how to get down on the ground.  It caught me short, because to me it was ‘obvious,’ but to the student, it was not. Now, as part of fire and movement as well as part of the safety brief, we cover getting up and down from standing to kneeling to prone with the rifle.

Regarding the Idaho class, here is an excellent student review that covers some of these points from the perspective of the trainee, and also gets into initial safety concerns and how they were mitigated by the instruction: ‘Student Review: Idaho CTT / Mobility May 2016: Kate.’

I will discuss the 4 Stages of Competence below, but before that, I’ll reference the Dunning-Kruger effect, which is related. ‘The Internet’ is a perfect place to find, and have to tolerate, those who are suffering from that ‘illusory superiority.’ I noticed it most recently on the re-post of that student review by Kate over at WRSA, where it was apparent that a number of the eight or so commenters had either based their comments entirely off the (training) photos without reading the review itself or understanding the context of the terrain and range, and/ or had no idea what they were talking about. As we all know, this is not a new phenomenon on the internet. *sigh*

The flip side, or corollary, to the D-K effect as described below, has to be identified and dealt with by anyone who wishes to pass on their experience by training others:

The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which relatively unskilled persons suffer illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their ability to be much higher than it really is. Dunning and Kruger attributed this bias to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their own ineptitude and evaluate their own ability accurately. Their research also suggests corollaries: highly skilled individuals may underestimate their relative competence and may erroneously assume that tasks which are easy for them are also easy for others.

The bias was first experimentally observed by David Dunning and Justin Kruger of Cornell University in 1999. They postulated that the effect is the result of internal illusion in the unskilled, and external misperception in the skilled: “The miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others.”

Of course, what is interesting about this is that it applies to your field of expertise, and not necessarily across your life. I am of course referencing tactical training in this post, where I would consider the MVT Cadre to be ‘unconsciously competent.’ But I know that in the field of electrical engineering, I am probably consciously incompetent, because it is not my area of expertise, and I know it. This is where humility comes in, and the related topic of knowing when to lead, and when to be led: lead where it is you area, have the humility to let others do so where it is not your area of competence.

The Four Stages of Competence:

Unconscious incompetence

The individual does not understand or know how to do something and does not necessarily recognize the deficit. They may deny the usefulness of the skill. The individual must recognize their own incompetence, and the value of the new skill, before moving on to the next stage. The length of time an individual spends in this stage depends on the strength of the stimulus to learn.

Comment: Sound familiar? All those across the internet heaping scorn on those who would tactically train, not recognizing their own incompetence or even the need to train? This is the bulk of ‘the internet.’ The reference to the ‘stimulus to learn’ is also very interesting, if taken in the light of the many comments you see along the lines of “things are still too comfortable right now.” For most of these people  when they finally wake up, it will be too late.

Because why? Because PT is a basis for being able to conduct small unit tactics (SUT) and if neglected cannot be gained at short notice. Also, whether or not you can, or think you can shoot, anyone who trains at MVT knows that it is not a shooting class, but a team class about how to ‘shoot, move, and communicate.’ See those linked posts at the top of this page for more information on why that is not as easy at it reads on the internet.

Conscious incompetence

Though the individual does not understand or know how to do something, he or she does recognize the deficit, as well as the value of a new skill in addressing the deficit. The making of mistakes can be integral to the learning process at this stage.

Comment: This is the stage that many MVT students will come from. They recognize the need for the skill, and the value in gaining it. That value being the increased survival chances of themselves and their family. MVT offers an environment where mistakes can be made and learned from, where the price is not your life, or that of your kids.

The flip side to that is those that recognize the need, but will not train due to ego, or fear of failure at class in front of others. These are the types who try and eke out the knowledge solely from the internet, or who will only ‘train’ when surrounded by people they trust will not embarrass them: and thus, they avoid effective training due to false belief built on ego, and do not recognize that a training environment is designed to tolerate mistakes on the way to success. Perhaps they heard that in the middle of a simulated gunfight on the live ranges at MVT, a cadre would perhaps yell once or twice? Wow. They should have trained in Idaho, where the mobility training area was covered in numerous ‘Big Ass Holes’ created by badgers (class joke – watch out for the ‘Big Ass Hole’).

Below: Idaho Mobility Scenario: ‘Mother with baby (pillow)’ exiting vehicle immobilized in the kill zone.


Conscious competence

The individual understands or knows how to do something. However, demonstrating the skill or knowledge requires concentration. It may be broken down into steps, and there is heavy conscious involvement in executing the new skill.

Comment: This is where many alumni are, who have trained and built the basic skills, yet need to conduct continuation training back home in a competence environment, and would benefit from returning for more advanced classes and repetition of the basic classes. These are perishable skills and you cannot just train once and ‘be done.’ Those military or retired military who train may be here also, because they may have skill fade due to not operating any longer, or for some time, in an infantry role.

One of the reasons the 6 day combined CTT/CP class went away at the VTC (with the exception of remote classes) was due to this mindset where people could come in and ‘get it done.’ Yes, it was economical for flights from California etc, but so many times students would show up and then immediately realize that, for example, their PT sucked, but at that time they were locked into the class. It’s not that I don’t bang on about the need for at least a basic level of PT for these classes, but it seems many people are not listening. Oh, wait: Unconscious incompetence in the PT realm! I find it better for people to come and do CTT, go away and fix their PT and gear etc, then come back for either another CTT, or Combat Patrol, or Force On Force etc. If you are doing a combined class as part of remote training in Texas or Idaho, then please listen and go out and do some PT, even if it’s just hiking with some gear on. Please do same for CTT also!

Unconscious competence

The individual has had so much practice with a skill that it has become “second nature” and can be performed easily. As a result, the skill can be performed while executing another task. The individual may be able to teach it to others, depending upon how and when it was learned.

Comment: if you show up to class with this level of skill, then you are in danger of being snapped up as cadre, so long as you show an ability to translate that skill into an ability to teach others. You have to be able to look inside yourself at what you are doing, and break it down into teachable parts.

To conclude, the D-K effect, and the Four Stages of Competence, are an interesting way to assess your own level of competence, and also that of those you come across on the internet. However, at the end of the day, always remember that despite your best efforts, “you can’t fix stupid!”