Your learning edge

Using your learning edge

Part 2 – Your learning edge

Jeff Mitchell – Community Sport Advisor – Sport Auckland

In our first article we discussed how learning is not just about gaining knowledge, but rather about improvement. It is about finding new solutions and achieving competency at a task. It is also about identifying what you don’t currently know or are unaware of. In this article we will look at the learning cycle, the learning zones, and how to set goals that require you to operate at your learning edge.

The learning cycle

learning cycleTo improve you need to be challenged. This means that real learning isn’t comfortable; you need to push yourself to go beyond what you currently know and are able to do. This requires you to work through the learning cycle. Similar to the Johari Window, which looks at self-awareness, the learning cycle comprises four stages that combine your consciousness and competence at a task. The four stages are as follows:

Unconscious incompetence         

This is the ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’ stage. Here you lack an awareness of the topic, or are unaware of how much or how little you know. It may be that you have not faced a situation that requires the skill. It could be that you don’t recognise the value of the skill, or you do not recognise your own incompetence.

Conscious incompetence

Here your performance of the skill is low. You now recognise that you do not know how to do something, or you have become aware of an area of weakness in your performance. You may now recognise the value of an area of knowledge or skill, and as a result are able to start planning how to learn about or improve in the area.

Conscious competence

With time and effort you will become more competent in the area that you have been working on. This will bring you into the conscious competence stage. Here you know how to do something, and with focus and effort you are able to have success. You still need to think about the skill and focus on it in order to be successful; hence the “conscious” aspect. You may break the skill down into a number of steps that you take, and you will have a hard time focussing on anything else while you are doing it.

Unconscious competence

The final stage of the learning cycle is when you become proficient and no longer need to focus on completing the skill. Often you will be able to do it on “autopilot”, allowing you to perform it while completing other tasks. As the skill no longer requires conscious effort, your performance will be smoother and require less effort.

Learning cycle

As it is a learning cycle, once you have reached the unconscious competence stage you should start to work through the learning cycle again with a new area. This will often involve starting with something that is currently in your “unconscious incompetence” stage. Progressing through the four stages in an area of learning or competency isn’t a given, however. To do so requires you to work at the appropriate level, with the optimum level being at your learning edge.

Learning zones

learning zonesA learning zone relates to the level of competency that you have in a particular coaching skill. The amount of learning that takes place will depend on which learning zone you are operating in. As we have noted, learning occurs when you are challenged. This means that learning will occur when you are working at a level that challenges your level of competency.

There are three broad learning zones and two subzones that you can operate in. Where you operate for a given task depends on the difficulty of the task and your competency for the task. When your level of competency meets the difficulty of the task you will be in the competency zone. Here you are operating within your abilities, and with some effort and attention you are able to achieve the task at hand. There may be some learning occurring, however, the challenge is not great enough for much learning to take place.

Below the competency zone is the boredom zone. Here the task is easy and therefore lacks challenge. There will not be any learning occurring here and boredom is likely due to the low level of difficulty relative to your competency. In this state staleness can set in and you certainly aren’t being challenged to improve.

On the other side, above the competency zone, we find the anxiety zone. When the task is too difficult for you given your current level of competency, anxiety sets in and you will shut down or give up. In this zone you are unable to achieve the required outcome, as you are out of your depth. Due to the anxiety that you experience, you are unable to take effective learning from the situation. Spending too long in the anxiety zone will stunt your growth and damage your confidence.

learning sub zonesIn addition to these three zones there are two subzones. The first, the comfort zone, occupies the area at the low end of the competency zone. Here the task will be easy and you will feel comfortable completing it. Most people spend most of their time here, as you will get the most effectiveness for the least amount of effort. Operating within your comfort zone is not very rewarding, however, and there is very little learning taking place.

The other subzone is the focus of this series of articles: the learning edge. Your learning edge is located just above your competency zone – just inside your anxiety zone. Here is where the greatest learning occurs, as you are challenged by a task that is just outside your competency level. You can expect to make a lot of mistakes as the task is just beyond your capability. You are able to maintain your composure, rather than shutting down as you would further into the anxiety zone, due to the task being only just inside this zone. This means that you are able to make use of your mistakes, which provide great learning opportunities.

The learning edge is the area which you want to operate in in order to learn and improve. This is where real growth will occur. You will often get into this area when facing a new or novel situation, and by attempting tasks that are a bit more difficult than you are used to. By attempting these tasks – and sticking with them – you will be in the zone which offers the greatest opportunities for learning. Let’s now look at how these zones work within the learning cycle.

Learning zones and the learning cycle

We can understand the learning zones better – and use them to our advantage – by seeing how they relate to the learning cycle. By doing this we can start to formulate how to get into – and stay in – the learning edge. To do this we will look at each stage of the learning cycle and how it can be related to the learning zones.

Unconscious incompetence

While the unconscious incompetence stage can be seen in the boredom zone, it is most commonly seen when you are working in your comfort zone. As you are dealing with tasks that are easy, your weaknesses are not being exposed. This means that you can continue blindly, not realising your lack of competence in certain areas. As you stick with what you know, you rarely come across situations that require you to use skills that you don’t have. As you are having success at the task at hand – by not pushing yourself out of your comfort zone – you often won’t recognise the value of skills that you don’t currently use.

It is unlikely that you will recognise that your competency at a given task is in fact quite low if you are not challenging yourself. By remaining in your comfort zone you continue to be in the unconscious incompetence stage in a range of skills. This leads to staleness, plateaus and general dissatisfaction with your coaching.

unconscious incompetence 

Conscious incompetence

Sometimes you will be jolted out of your comfort zone, making you conscious of your incompetence in a certain task. Often this is when you face a new situation or are asked to perform a task at well above your current competency level. Usually this will mean going to the edge of the competency zone or, more likely, into the anxiety zone. This process causes you to recognise a deficiency in your skill set, making you now consciously incompetent.

You are able to plan how to develop your capabilities once you are conscious of your incompetence. The best way to do this is to work in your learning edge – the area where the greatest learning will take place. This will force you to work on your weaknesses and to learn from your mistakes. It will also allow you to see much more progress than if you remain in your comfort or competency zones.

The transition from conscious incompetence to conscious competence is an important one and is an area that we will focus on throughout this article series. It will include actions such as research (to fill gaps in your current knowledge of the situation or task), development planning, trial and error, analysis and reflection.

Conscious incompetence


Conscious competence

If you operate at your learning edge – and stick with the task – then you will eventually gain competency at it. Here you will know how to complete the task, and with focus and effort you will be successful at it. You are not yet in the comfort zone – you aren’t currently operating on autopilot – as you still need to think about what you are doing. In general you will be operating within the upper parts of your competency zone. If you continue to work at your learning edge, you will speed up your progress into the next stage: unconscious competence.

conscious competence

Unconscious competence

This is the stage that you want to get to, as it is where the highest performance levels are reached. As you no longer need to think about what you are doing, you are able to direct your attention elsewhere while still performing the desired task.

Once you reach this stage you will drop out of the learning edge and into the competency zone, or, more likely, the comfort zone. This means that you can now re-enter the learning cycle at either the unconscious incompetence or conscious incompetence stage. You could do this by either:

  • Challenging your competency at the task by using it in a more difficult situation, or
  • Moving your focus onto another area of your coaching, moving back into the learning edge.

Challenging a skill that you currently have competency in will force you back into the learning edge. This may highlight deficiencies in your skill that were not apparent when operating at a lower level. This will move you from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence, allowing you to work through the cycle to develop your competence in the area.

If you chose to focus on another area of your coaching, you could start from either the unconscious incompetence stage or the conscious incompetence stage. For the former you could undertake tasks that are challenging and help you to become aware of your areas where you need to improve. If you are already aware of some other areas of your coaching that need work, you can select one of these and then work to become competent at it.

Unconscious competence

It is important to note that your learning zones will change as you become more competent: what was difficult and in your learning edge will become easier, moving into your competency zone and no longer providing enough of a challenge. Tasks that were in your competency zone will fall into your comfort zone as they are able to be done on autopilot. To keep developing you must take into account the changes in the learning zones as you become more skilled at a task.

Application to coach development

From our discussion we can identify some key messages regarding the use of the learning cycle and learning zones for your coach development:

  • Work to develop your awareness of where you have deficiencies, moving from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence;
  • Accelerate your progress through the learning cycle by working at your learning edge, challenging yourself to get better;
  • Testing your skills by placing yourself into new and difficult situations, and
  • Guarding against complacency, by staying out of your comfort zone.

The best way to consistently work in your learning edge is through goal setting. Setting challenging goals – just beyond what you are capable of currently achieving – will force you to stretch yourself through operating at your learning edge. This requires you to know where your learning edge is. To do this you need to identify for a task or skill where each of your zones currently lie. Use the following process to identify your learning zones and then set some appropriate goals:

1) Identify your baseline – your competency zone

Your first task is to determine your current competency level. This will tell you where your competency zone lies. Think about the situations where, with effort, you are able to achieve success at the task. Alternatively, think about the level of skill which you are able to display (what can you currently achieve?). This process will raise your awareness (moving you from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence) and give you a starting point from which to set some goals. The best way to determine your baseline is through profiling.

2) Identify your comfort zone

For the skills or tasks you are addressing, think about where you find them “easy”. Which situations are you able to coast in or fall back on? When are you using the skills without extending yourself? This is your comfort zone; your challenge is to ensure that you keep pushing yourself beyond it.

3) Identify your anxiety zone

Now think about situations which are too difficult for you – where your skill breaks down and you get frustrated. What do you know to be well out of your current reach? This could be a long-term goal for you. Before you get there you will need to set some short-term goals. These will be in your learning edge.

4) Set goals within your learning edge

Having mapped each zone for a given task or skill, you should now be able to locate your learning edge – just outside your competency zone and not as far as your long-term goals in the anxiety zone. Set yourself some challenging goals that will have you working in your learning edge.

Your learning edge is where you will find challenge and the greatest learning. By profiling yourself you can identify where each of your learning zones are and set goals to keep you in your learning edge. As you work through the learning cycle keep challenging yourself to get better, and once you have reached unconscious competence in a task make sure you start addressing a new area, starting the cycle again.

In the next issue we will look at how to put together a learning plan to guide you through the learning cycle and keep you operating at your learning edge.


Armour, O. (2006). The learning edge. Communications of the ACM 49(6): 19-22.

Whitmore, J. (2002). Coaching for Performance, Nicholas Brealey Publishing, London.

Issue 1.

Related articles

How Competencies Support Learning & Development: The Learning Cycle

The learning cycle and the power of asynchronous learning activities

7 thoughts on “Your learning edge

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