That's a brain teaser of a question. How do you know whether there's something you don't know or not?
Hopefully, this post will be useful to learner drivers because it will explain the benefits of practice and repetition in learning how to drive. It may also be of use to trainee driving instructors because a knowledge of how people learn can help them to devise training targets and learning plans.
It also explains some of the errors learners make and the stages we go through when learning to do anything.
There are many theories of learning, and all of them have some very useful information that can help us when learning to drive or if we're helping others by teaching them to drive.
The theory I'd like to talk briefly about here is known by several names but is commonly referred to as the Conscious Incompetence model.
Sounds complicated. It's not, but It's very instructive. Read on to find out more . . .
The Conscious Incompetence model of learning is based on 4 main stages that every learner must go through to learn any skill. It's particularly suited to learning any psychomotor skill.
Psychomotor. That's a great word! It sounds good but what does it mean?
Break it down. Psycho refers to thought and Motor refers to coordinated physical movement. So Psychomotor simply means any skill that requires thought and coordinated physical movement.
It should. It could have been dreamed up to describe the process of learning to drive. We use our senses of sight and hearing to recognise hazards, we use our thought processes to make decisions and we then coordinate our physical movements to control the car through the hazard. Simple!
There are 4 stages to this model of learning and it's important, as driving instructors, that we help our learners through each and every sage and guide them onto achieving the next. If we don't, the learner runs the risk of sticking at one of the stages. That's very common indeed. it can be overcome later, but it's far better and creates a more permanent skill set if we get it right for them from the start.
Let's look at the 4 stages of the model:
Stage 1: Unconscious Incompetence
Unconscious Incompetence is the state that every learner is in when they first get into a car. Unconscious means that they don't know, and Incompetence means that they can't do it.
In other words, when they first start out, all learners can't drive but they don't know they can't drive, because they've never done it before.
As soon as our learner gets into the driving seat, confident that it will be easy and they'll pass their test before tea time and the next Xbox game, they very soon learn the lesson that they didn't know before. They just can't drive.
As soon as that realisation sets in (which is usually very quick), they move onto stage 2
Stage 2: Conscious Incompetence
If unconscious means they don't know, conscious is the opposite. It means they do know.
In this stage our learner becomes aware that they can't drive. That's not a great place to be for them and they need a lot of help and reassurance as they learn the necessary skills.
At this stage the learner is completely aware that they can't drive and has to focus all of their attention on trying to do even the most basic of tasks in the car.
It's vital at this stage that the learner does in fact learn how to deal with situations themselves, and that they develop the coordination to use the controls of the car. If the instructor helps them by using the duals or other controls at this stage, the learner is effectively locked in and remains Consciously Incompetent, never progresses, and is condemned to being unable to use the controls for themselves. I've come across many fantastic examples of this when I've met learners who've had lots of lessons but still can't deal with a simple emerge from a junction without assistance.
With time, patience, help and practice, the learner driver progresses to the next stage.
Stage 3: Conscious Competence
At this stage our learner is aware that they can drive (competence) but they have to concentrate and think about it (conscious).
They are aware of all the basic routines of driving but have to think and concentrate to be able to do them. They can do it, and they know that they can do it, but they have to try to do it.
It's at this stage where the learner is most easily set back by sudden or unexpected events, such as stalling at a busy junction. Remember, they have to think about everything to be able to do it properly. They can do it, but it takes thought and it takes effort. Any stressful event can throw them and cause them to lose confidence.
Conscious Competence is the stage at which most learners take their driving test.
Personally, I'm not sure that that's doing them any great favours, but we have to accept that there's a balance to be found between sending learners for test too early or keeping them hanging on with lessons too long. Having said that, it's important to remember that driving tests are stressful enough, if the learner has to concentrate hard on using the controls of the car there's nothing left in the stress tank to deal with sitting next to the examiner.
It's at this stage that the instructor needs to exercise great care to help the learner progress towards the next stage
Stage 4: Unconscious Competence.
The Holy Grail of learning any psychomotor skill is to reach the stage of Unconscious Competence.
When our learner reaches this stage they are competent and no longer have to think about it to do it.
Driving becomes effortless and the psychomotor skills needed to get from A to B are exercised without any great thought or concentration. At this stage all of our attention can be thrown outside the car and we can use all of our powers of thought in recognising and reacting to hazards.
Moving from Wide Angle To Narrow
I've used the overarching term "driving" throughout this post, but think about it. Driving is made up of lots and lots of skills that can be seen as separate and unconnected.
Changing gear. We can go through all four of the above stages of learning simply changing gear.
Using the Mirrors. Again, we can go through all four stages of the model talking about nothing but mirror use.
Keep in mind that this model can be successfully used to describe the stages we go through to learn an all-encompassing skill like driving, but each and every individual facet of driving can also be described by using the same model.
It follows (and is common) that many learners are, for example, Consciously Incompetent at clutch control (they know they can't do it properly) but Unconsciously Competent at using the mirrors (they use the mirrors and don't have to think about it).
It would be almost impossible for a learner to progress in every area of driving at the same time or at the same rate. They'll learn some things quickly, others will take longer.
This splitting down of the necessary skills for driving can be another cause of disappointment for learners. They do some things great, but then find that they can't do others.
The Long Haul - Experienced Drivers
In the fullness of time, after passing their test, it's extremely common for drivers to revert to various earlier stages of the model.
Drivers often progress to Unconscious Competence in using the controls of the car, meaning that they don't have to think about it, they just do it.
This is very easily seen in practice in traffic queues because if you watch carefully you'll see people putting on their make-up for work, sending a text, updating their social media status and generally paying no attention at all to the physical movements of driving, even though they're doing 70mph on a busy dual carriageway. Yes, that's unconscious competence in action right there in the real world.
Those same drivers very often revert completely to Unconscious Incompetence when it comes to seeing danger and reacting to hazards.
Sit next to any normal driver who passed their test a few years ago and you'll notice that they are more concerned about problems at work, what's for tea, where to go on Friday night than they are with what is happening immediately around them.
They don't have to give a second thought to the physical coordination of using the controls of the car, but recognising any danger around them is completely out of their comfort zone. In fact, they don't even usually consider any zone at all. This is why so many hundreds of drivers, every single day, drive into stationary objects such as parked cars or pedestrians, and will continue to do so.
It's normal for people to think that they're the best driver in the world, and when they drive into a stationary car or knock a cyclist off it's no doubt someone else's fault, never theirs. They end up in a state where they don't know that they are incompetent at spotting and dealing with danger, and go through their entire lives blissfully ignorant that they are in a state of Unconscious Incompetence when it comes to recognising and dealing with dangerous situations.
Interestingly, statistics have shown that time and time again the same drivers will be involved in the same types of collisions over and over. They continue to make those same mistakes throughout their lives and are almost always adamant that it's never their fault.
Here's the scary bit. Any driver who drives into the back of another vehicle at a junction or in a traffic queue is more than 6 times as likely to have the same collision again as anyone who hasn't been involved in a similar incident. Unconscious Incompetence in full glory.
Unconscious Incompetence is the stage they're at, and it's the stage they'll stay in, no matter what anyone tells them.