The Four Learning Stages – Gordon’s Ladder - Steve Barkley

The Four Learning Stages – Gordon’s Ladder

Very early in my work in coaching, I was introduced to Tom Gordon’s four learning stages: unconsciously unskilled, consciously unskilled, consciously skilled, unconsciously skilled. Tom Gordon was a clinical psychologist who studied with Carl Rogers and developed a model for communication that was built into well- known programs in the 1960s: Parent Effectiveness Training, Teacher Effectiveness Training, and Leadership Effectiveness Training. The Four Learning Stages describe the process that people generally go through when learning communication skills and applying those skills into their practice.

Unconsciously unskilled- This level is sometimes called unconsciously incompetent. In other words, the person doesn’t know that they are missing the skill.

Consciously Unskilled Now the person knows about the skill, and they know that they don’t have the skill. They know what it is, but they can’t use it or implement it.

Consciously Skilled At this stage you can implement the skill, but only with a strong conscious focus. Implementation is often clumsy and unnatural as the person is practicing the skill at that conscious level.

Unconsciously Skilled With sufficient practice, a person moves to the top level of Gordon’s Ladder called unconsciously skilled. At this point, one can use the skill with automaticity, at times not even being consciously aware that they are putting the skill into practice.

You can read more on the stages on The Gordon Training website here.

Often, instructional coaches support a school improvement plan involving the implementation of a new curriculum or instructional process change for an entire staff. I have found it helpful for coaches entering that process to take some time and identify where individual teachers are in this change process.  Where teachers are in the process influences actions for coaches to take. I have come up with five categories connected to Gordon’s Ladder.

Unwilling-The unwilling are sometimes easy to spot because they’re telling you right out, straight ahead, “I’m not going to implement it. I’m not going to do that change.” Other times, the unwilling people sit quietly in staff meetings and professional development only to go back to their classroom and stand firm and not make any change.

Unaware– These folks are at the bottom of the ladder at the spot called unconsciously unskilled. They don’t know that they aren’t implementing, or they don’t know that the process or strategies that they are using aren’t gaining the same level of effectiveness as the strategies that the change process is looking to implement.

Getting Ready –These teachers on Gordon’s Ladder fall into the area of being consciously unskilled.  They know they aren’t doing it and they know they are going to need to change, but they aren’t ready to implement that change now. Sometimes, I work in places where they describe those teachers as “fixin.” They’re fixing to implement, they’re fixing to bring about a change but not taking any action, yet.

Started – These are the teachers who are at the level of being consciously skilled. They can implement the change, but only when they are consciously focused. All their energy and all their thought processes are invested in implementation, which in the early stages is jagged. It doesn’t have a flow.  It’s hard for a teacher because she looks out and sees her classroom is less effective than it was before she implemented the change. This is often called the learning dip.

Developing– These teachers have turned the curve at the bottom of the learning dip, and they are starting to come up the other side. They are beginning to see the payoff of their change in student engagement or student learning.

Support, encouragement, and feedback

The unaware teacher needs an opportunity to move on Gordon’s Ladder from being unconsciously unskilled to consciously unskilled. They need to become aware that what is happening in their classroom is not what needs to happen. That awareness might come from visiting other teachers’ classrooms or from a coach modeling in the teacher’s classroom. It could come from a PLC looking at student work and the teacher realizing that her students are not producing the learning that is being produced in some of the other teachers’ classrooms.

The teacher who is getting ready teacher needs what might be called a “polite” kick in the pants. It’s a little shove. They know that they have to take action in order to start their learning. But there’s hesitancy on taking the action. It may take a little push on the coach’s part. Imagine this teacher sharing with the coach that she knows she needs to differentiate the centers in her classroom because of the spread of student levels, but that differentiation just takes so much time.  The coach steps in and says.” It does take a lot of time.  On Tuesday morning I could take your class for the first two blocks of time, and you could pull two of your centers and differentiate them.”  Either the teacher will carry out the task and see the payoff from having made the changes or the teacher will share that she is not sure how to do it. By uncovering the issue that’s prevented the person from getting started, you can provide the knowledge and assistance that the teacher needs to begin.

The teacher who has started is the teacher who has gone into the learning dip. This teacher likely needs some empathy. She needs to know that you understand that as implementation begins, it likely isn’t working, it isn’t being successful, and that you appreciate her willingness to stay at it. The feedback that those teachers need is feedback on the fact that the teacher is making the change. The teacher behaviors are appropriate even though the student learning behaviors haven’t begun to switch yet.

The developing teacher has moved through the learning dip and has started to come up the other side. Now the feedback that the coach provides identifies where students are changing.  Imagine a coach reporting that while the students were in the collaborative groups today, she noted these conversations.  The teacher gets reinforced by that information that the changes he’s implementing are having a payoff.

I frequently state that coaches don’t work with unwilling teachers because the unwilling teacher should be addressed in supervision or evaluation. Those things are outside the role of the instructional coaches. It’s not that coaches don’t do anything with the unwilling teacher, but they need to work through a process that brings the administrator, the coach, and the unwilling teacher onto the same page. If the principal asks the coach, “Would you go work with Mrs. Unwilling?” A coach should ask, “Does she know what you want her to do or to change?” If the principal says she does, the coach is ready to talk with the teacher. If the principal says,” I’m not sure”, as a coach I’d want to say let me know as soon as you’re sure and I’ll get started. In other words, it’s unfair to ask the coach to work with an unwilling teacher who doesn’t recognize that a change is being required from the supervisory process.

When meeting with the unwilling teacher, a coach wants clarity on two parts. One, does the unwilling teacher know what the administration is asking her to do or change?  If she’s clear on that, then the second question is, “Is she planning to do it?”  If she is planning to do it, the coach is all in.  If she’s not planning to make the change, it’s really not the spot for the coach to be spending time that’s unlikely to have any payoff.  It then really requires administrators to carry out their supervisory function.

Just a reminder that the four stages of learning apply to developing our coaching skills. That’s why coaches want to have coaches. Let me know any thoughts you have concerning Gordon’s Ladder and the applications to your coaching and training work.

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One Response to “ The Four Learning Stages – Gordon’s Ladder ”

  1. Vicki Duff Says:

    Just want you to know how this has impacted so much of what I do. You have stayed true to your beliefs. Love that this is still at the core of your work.


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