The five stages of deep learning

In this post, we develop a model for five stages of deep learning. Remember that we defined learning as a process that leads to change. The 5-phase model we explore in this article helps identify distinct stages in this process of deep learning. This model will help you figure out how to push your learning deeper and develop your expertise in any skill or knowledge that you want to master.

This diagram, titled the Five Stages of Deep Learning, highlights five stages in learning and developing mastery.
Figure 1: The Stages of Deep Learning Diagram

Stage 0: Unconscious Inexperience

This is the stage of learning where you are completely ignorant of the target knowledge. The phrase unconscious inexperience captures two important features of this point in the learning process. The first feature is that you have no idea about the knowledge you are trying to build: it is literally outside your conscious awareness. The second feature highlights that because you don’t know that this knowledge exists, you have no experience in this realm and no way to integrate this new knowledge into your existing mental models for the world. In the diagram above, I label this as stage zero. I like to use the number zero here, rather than the number one, because in this early phase of learning, you have zero awareness of the information you are trying to master.

It’s hard to give an example for knowledge in which you might be in stage 0 of your learning process. The moment we use words to identify a specific idea or skill that you want to master, you become aware of this information. This is where we can use our imagination. When developing this model for mastery, imagine that your consciousness is a set of binoculars through which you view the world. When you are learning something new, you train your lenses on a specific object: the target knowledge you are trying to master. In stage 0 of your learning process, you’ve never seen the target knowledge before and your binoculars are pointed in some other direction. In other words, you’ve never set eyes on the content and your conscious mind doesn’t even know that it exists yet.

Stage 1: Conscious Inexperience

The first stage of building knowledge and skill begins with awareness. The terminology conscious inexperience signifies that, in this stage, you become increasingly mindful of what you do not know. Since so much of learning is guided by your lived experiences, your inexperience with the target knowledge in this early stage of learning leaves you with an incomplete understanding. The important feature of this phase of learning is that you are aware, at least on some level, of your ignorance. In the Stages of Deep Learning diagram above, this stage is labeled with the number one since the process of learning something new begins when you become cognizant that the target knowledge exists.

To extend our analogy with the binoculars, we enter stage 1 when our lenses have passed over the new knowledge. We should be careful here. Just because you are conscious that knowledge exists does not imply that you are staring intently at this object and studying its minute features. Instead, you might quickly glance at the knowledge on your way to some other destination. To become aware that something exists, you must spend enough time looking at the object to register it’s presence in you conscious mind. But there is a very large distance between awareness of some new knowledge and an intense focus on mastering that knowledge. The moment you transition from simply glancing at an object of study to a deep focus on this object, you progress away from rudimentary perception into the process of building mastery.

Stage 2: Conscious Expertise

You reach this second stage in the process of learning when you are certain that you’ve captured the entire skill or mastered all parts of the target knowledge for yourself. The description conscious expertise highlights two aspects of this phase of learning. First, when you are in this phase, you have developed real expertise. You are now fully aware of almost all important aspects of the new knowledge that you are studying and you’ve made meaningful connections between these new ideas and your prior knowledge. Second, to demonstrate, exercise, or apply this knowledge at this stage still requires conscious effort. To activate your learning, leverage your expertise, and apply this knowledge in your life, you must think and act deliberately.

I label this as stage 2 to represent the progression from no knowledge towards content mastery. In truth, the gap between stages 0 and 1 is considerably smaller than the space between stages 1 and 2. If we are trying to capture a numerical score for the amount of effort it takes to move into this stage 2 of your learning, we should label this stage using a number in the thousands or even millions, where the exact number depends on what knowledge you are trying to master. But our enumeration scheme in this model is not designed to describe the amount of effort we must invest to move from one stage to the next. Instead, our numbering system helps us visualize the process of learning. From this standpoint, labeling this stage with the number two helps delimit the differences between simple consciousness and deliberate expertise.

You arrive at stage 2 only when you are 100% certain that you understand every feature of the knowledge you want to build. In the case that you are trying to master a new skill, you reach this stage if you can demonstrate that skill in action completely and with your intended output, where your results come from self-control rather than luck. In this stage, you can’t necessarily demonstrate every relevant detail of the new knowledge without thinking. If someone were to test you in your learning here, you probably need to invest significant effort to demonstrate your mastery. But the important fact is that you’ve spent long enough to fully capture all details for yourself. You might not be able to remember under pressure, but you’ve done what you need to do to encode the object of study in your own brain.

When we think about consciousness as lenses on a pair of binoculars, you arrive at stage 2 after hours of intense focus on your object of study spent over many days, weeks, months, or years. This might include studying the object from many different angles while taking detailed notes on everything that you see. You might create sketches of the object with labels and supporting diagrams. You might also write detailed verbal descriptions of everything that you see in your lenses as you train your sight on the knowledge you want to master. I’m not claiming that writing, drawing, and other academic work is the only way to learn or develop skill. Indeed, for a tennis player who wants to develop a topspin forehand or for a violinist who is trying to play a complex piece, the best thing they can do is practice the skill rather than to write about it or draw a picture. What I’m saying here is that in order to move into stage 2 of the learning process, you have to spend many hours of slow, deliberate practice that is in your sweet spot for learning. I’ll talk more about what this practice looks like in my next blog post.

Stage 3: Unconscious Expertise

At this third stage of learning, you exercise the skill or knowledge you’ve acquired so automatically and instinctively that you are no longer consciously aware of what you know or do. You are able to blend these ideas or skills with your other knowledge effortlessly. You can also recall pertinent facts about the target knowledge quickly and describe any feature in many different ways. We call this stage of learning unconscious expertise because you have an expert-level understanding of the knowledge and you can wield this mastery without conscious effort.

We label this stage with the number three to represent the idea that the type of learning we do to build deep understanding and enter stage 2 is different than the type of practice needed to ingrain this understanding into long-term memory. In other words, the type of activities we do to move from stage 1 into stage 2 is not the same as the practices we use to transition from stages 2 to 3.

In our binoculars analogy, you arrive at stage 3 when you can recall any detail about your object of study without looking at that object. In fact, even while your binoculars are trained on some other object, you can recall the glorious details of any relevant features of your original knowledge that might be helpful in the moment. Stage-3 mastery implies that you have a complete mental model of your object of study that exists independent of where your binoculars are trained. To get to this stage 3 of the learning process, you need to create mechanisms to recall your object of study quickly so that you can leverage these ideas without effort.

Stage 4: Master Learner

The fourth and final stage of learning happens when you resolve to inspire, coach, mentor, and empower the next generation of learners to build their own knowledge using your expertise. My favorite motto to express the personal growth that comes from teaching is “Those who can, do. Those who teach, do better.” One of the most magical aspects of good teaching is that this work with young learners not only propels growth in the mind of the beginner, but also accelerates growth within the mind of the expert. I am reminded of one of my favorite quotes on this subject:

“The teacher is no longer merely the-one-who-teaches, but one who is himself taught in dialogue with the students, who in turn while being taught also teach. They become jointly responsible for a process in which all grow.”

~ Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

When you set your mind to training learners with less experience in a particular subject, you begin to see the entire enterprise of learning in a new light. The process of preparing for such powerful encounters pushes your mind to new spaces in an attempt to answer questions, concerns, and address feedback during your public display of knowledge. This preparation is an extremely valuable process that deepens the teacher’s understanding of the subject and brings into conscious awareness many of the subtleties that experts sometimes forget during day-to-day practice.

This growth accelerates when you actually get into the room with people who have less experience in a specific subject.The variety and diversity in lived experiences of the learners you teach push you to imagine aspects of the learning that may have been previously outside your perception, awareness, or interest. When learners show up as their authentic selves and share their struggle with you as their teacher, this struggle pushes you to develop a new appreciation for your own knowledge and deepens your expertise in exciting and unexpected ways.

In the binoculars analogy of consciousness and learning, stage 4 of deep learning is equivalent to revisiting a particular object after many months or years away from that object. One benefit you earn as an expert learner in Stage 3 is that you can move on in your learning processes to more advanced subjects or more difficult skills that are based on the knowledge that you’ve mastered. Because your expertise has moved into your unconscious mind, you do not need to train your binoculars back at the original object in order to grow your brain by leveraging this knowledge. However, after many months or years of advanced practice, you may begin to forget how the original knowledge impacts your daily work or why the knowledge you’ve developed is true. Even though you initially spent so many hours building your expertise, you come to a space where the knowledge feels intuitive, like breathing or sleeping.

The moment you take responsibility for students who are attempting to develop their own expertise, you train your lenses (your consciousness) back on the object of study. Doing so lights up so many of the features you studied deeply in the past and forces you to articulate ideas that you’ve long taken for granted. Moreover, if you’re doing your job as a teacher well, your students will see connections and features of the object that never crossed your mind in the original study. If you are good at building trust with your students, being vulnerable, and creating effective learning relationships, your students will take risks that you never dared to. Such exploration and deliberate practice gives rise to mistakes that you never had the luxury of making yourself. If you are a supportive teacher, the process of mentoring students to correct their errors will push you to new spaces and deepen your understanding. In these moments, your students become your teachers.

In addition to the self-centered benefits of teaching to improve your own expertise, there is another reason that I believe that the final stage of becoming a master learner involves teaching. This is out of service to your community. By the time you become an expert in a particular bit of knowledge or skill, it is very likely that our society and your communities have poured valuable resources into your development process. You’ve probably benefited from unconditional support and tons of personal privilege in developing your powers. I like to remember that, with great power, comes great responsibility.

One of the ways we protect our society and pass the torch to the next generation is to pay it forward. We teach people with less experience how to thrive by creating their own knowledge. I like to remind all experts, current and future, that this is the cost of our expertise. We each have a responsibility to share with other the knowledge and skills that our communities helped us cultivate. This is a learning-based example of the circle of life: the lessons and mistakes of the master help birth new expertise in the next generation.

For young learners, I also want to remind you that some of our elders have forgotten the moral imperative to protect future generations that was wrapped up in the privilege they enjoyed in their young age. Climate change, systemic racism, income inequality: these are all multi-generational issues that arose because of policies that clouded the vision of beloved experts that came before us. Let us forgive them and recognize their humanity. But, let us never forget that it is up to us to do everything we can to learn to see clearly. Part of the way we do this is to commit to the growth of the next generation that comes after us and to help them develop their own clear visions for the world they want to inhabit. Without this final stage of learning, any expertise you build for yourself dies in your body and does nothing to progress the larger field in which you do your work and the communities in which you live.

Community Challenge

  1. Think about this model for the five stages of deep learning. Identify an example of a specific type of knowledge or skill for which you are in each of these five stages. Finding such an example for the first phase, Stage 0: Unconscious Inexperience, might be hard to write down but I challenge you to try: the exercise of imagining something outside your consciousness is a fun one. Share your examples in the comment section below.

  2. Give an example of a type of knowledge or skill for which you successfully moved from stage 1 to stage 2. How long did that take you? What type of practice did you do to make that transition?

  3. Given an example of a type of knowledge or skill for which you successfully moved from stage 2 to stage 3. How long did that take you? What type of practice did you engage in?

  4. What are the similarities and differences between the type of learning you need to do to move from stage 1 to stage 2 versus the type of learning need to do to move from stage 2 to stage 3?

  5. Think about the following motto: “Those who can, do. Those who teach, do better.” What does that phrase mean to you? Where have you seen examples in your life where this phrase rings true? Where have you seen examples of where this phrase seems hollow and does not apply?

  6. What are characteristics of a teacher who pushes their own practice to new levels while engaged in their own teaching and learning practices? What can you do, in the earlier stages of your learning, to make it easier for you to teach others the content expertise you are developing? What habits would you develop if you had teaching in mind while you learned in these earlier stages?

8 thoughts on “The five stages of deep learning

  1. “But, let us never forget that it is up to us to do everything we can to learn to see clearly.”

    I can see clearly now the rain is gone.
    I can see all obstacles in my way. – Jimmy Cliff

    Thank you for allowing your students to see clearly and be expressive. I’ve witnessed multiple students of yours just in the past two Q’s begin healing from their experiences in STEM in dialog w you… Thank you for designing educational experiences where emotions are welcome and accepted.

    This post, and seeing your transparency around work over the past 6 years, inspired me to document my stages of deep learning! I actually don’t think I’m gonna stick w the google sites page, but the home and activities page have been fun to write so far lol. CS content coming soon!


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