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The Learning Pathway


By Dr Daniel K. Robinson

(2015)

I can s ll remember my first guitar lesson. We were a bunch of eager eight year olds gathered around
our teacher awkwardly trying to sit the cumbersome shape of a size guitar on our laps. So much
excitement, so much joy. Each week I looked forward to our group guitar lessons, so much so that my
parents decided that I might benefit from weekly one-on-one tui on. And my musical development did
benefit. My childhood guitar lessons were the
commencement of my lifelong love for music. They
taught me about music making, performance and the
journey of the learning pathway.
Some of you who know my work well may be surprised
to learn that I play guitar. Thats because, despite it
being my founda onal instrument, I do not consider
myself a guitarist. Far from it, actually. You see when I
was in my early teens I also discovered that I could sing.
It was my high school music teacher, Ian Champion (we
called him Champs), who iden fied that I had a voice;
a voice that apparently surpassed my guitar
playingand so I stepped out from behind the guitar
and became a singer first and foremost. Before I
con nue my reflec on, allow me to say that I recognise
being a singer first and foremost, for the most part, has worked out well for me, but I do hold a small
regret that my level of guitar playing froze during the mid-eigh es and has not really progressed since.
As I reflect on my early-mid teens (with the great benefit of mature hindsight) I can now observe that
my development as a guitarist had reached a level of competency which allowed me to accompany my
vocals adequately; with the ac ve word being adequately. I was receiving all the applause a fourteen
year old boy could ever wantwhy would I need to develop any further? With slight embarrassment I
have to admit I thought I had arrived.
The long las ng consequence of my delusional arrival is a skill-level on the guitar that, to-this-day, is
s ll only at best adequate for rhythmic accompaniment. As Ive said many mes to friends and family,
I describe my guitar playing as competent hacking! I know too many excellent guitarist to ever venture
the no on that I could or should be considered among their ranks.
In many ways my developmental pathway as a person who plays the guitar (adequately) is somewhat
akin to Dorothys journey along the yellow brick road in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
Dr Daniel K. Robinson 2015

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They now came upon more and more of the big scarlet flowers un l they found themselves in the midst
of a great meadow carpeted with nothing but poppies. Now in the magical Land of Oz, it is well known
that when there are many of these flowers together their odor is so powerful that anyone who breathes
it falls asleep, and if the sleeper is not carried away from the scent of the blossoms, he sleeps on and on
forever. But Dorothy did not know this, nor could she get away from the bright red flowers that were
everywhere about; so presently her eyes grew heavy and she felt she must sit down to rest and to even
sleep. (Baum, 1900)

Ahh. The blissful comfort of sleep. Like Dorothy I lost my will to go on; but unlike Dorothy I did not have
anyone to carry me (and my guitar) forward, away from the sense-dulling aroma of the poppies. I
reached a level of competence that I became sa sfied with and accordingly didnt con nue the journey
of learning (for guitar).

Four Stages of Competence


Having experienced the developmental arrest of the poppies first hand, as a singing teacher I ac vely
observe my students for the signs of competency seizure. Lets step aside from our poppy metaphor for
the moment and align our discussion with something a li le more scien fic.
Educa onal psychologists talk about the learning pathway as having four stages of competency:
Skill is 'second
nature'
Skill can be
performed
similtaneous to
another skill
rendition

Blissfully ignorant
May deny
necessity of skill

4. Unconscious
Competence

1. Unconscious
Incompetence

3. Conscious
Competence

2. Conscious
Incompetence

Skill has been


acquired
Requires mindful
rendition

Recognition of Skill
Deficit
Willingness to
acquire new skills

Figure 1: Four Stages of Competence

When an adult student steps into my teaching studio for the first me they are, for the most part, taking
the step from the first stage of competency (Unconscious Incompetence) into the second stage of
competency (Conscious Incompetence). They have recognised that they lack the necessary skills to sing
with the level of competency that they deem appropriate to whatever goals they have in mind.
Dr Daniel K. Robinson 2015

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The desire to improve their singing competency leads them to seek the acquisi on of new skills via the
guidance of a singing teacher. In making this necessary step from stage 1 to stage 2 the learner
unwi ngly takes the step from blissful ignorance into acknowledged incompetence. Remember,
Dorothys journey commences when she wakes to find herself in the colourful and exci ng land of Oz.
Li le does she know that her new surroundings have hidden secrets that can only be revealed if she
chooses to step onto the yellow brick road and commence what can only be described as a challenging
journey. Dorothys decision to tackle the yellow brick road, come what may, is not dissimilar to stepping
into cognizant inep tude. In fact I think the second stage (Conscious Incompetence), although absolutely
necessary, is the most dicult stage for the adult learner. Why? Well, no one likes to be deemed
incompetent, and yet that is exactly what the second stage isfurthermore you are painfully aware of
your incompetence!
As frustra ng as the second stage is, it is the third stage that has the largest collec on of poppies. When
the adult learner acquires a certain level of skill (Conscious Competence), such as the beginner level of
singing technique, the learner may, albeit understandably, decide that the journey has been completed;
much like I did with my guitar playing. I could play all the necessary chords, hold tempo and make
musicwhat more could there possibly be? Well it turns outmuch more! O en when we survey our
learning pathway from our current loca on all we can see is what is immediately around us. We might
be conscious of how far we have come, but s ll ignorant to how far we have yet to go.
It is during the third stage that I observe many adult students of singing discon nue their tui on. In one
respect they have achieved their ini al goal: when they open their mouths to sing they now know what
they are going to get. Great. But remember, consistently singing in tune is not all there is to
singingthere is much more! And yet, sadly, this is
what I observe many adult learners se le for. O en
the individual is capable of far more if only they
con nue their journey.
Dont get me wrong. You must take moments to
celebrate developmental achievements. Also, at
mes, the learner requires short rests along the
journey so that they can recommence the arduous
challenges ahead.
The onwards and upwards of learning to sing is like
every other acquisi on of skill: cyclical. As you will
have no ced in Figure 1 (p. 2), the stages of
competence never really reach an end point. They
are a closed loop. With voice there is so much to learn you can literally spend your life me acquiring and
mindfully rendering all the skills necessary for singing. Add to this the developmental stages of the
human voice as it ages and you have a wonderfully rich journey of learning that can keep the pupil
occupied un l they complete lifes journey.
Dr Daniel K. Robinson 2015

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The Fih Stage.


Some educa onal scholars have expanded the four stages of
competency to include a fi h transcendent level of competence.
O en referred to as enlightened competence the inclusion of a fi h
stage recognises that ones learning is never really complete. For
example certain tasks are secure and operate at the fourth stage of
unconscious competence while other aspects of skill acquisi on may
be in any of the other three stages at any one moment in me. Most
of us recognise the fi h stage when we see it. Its observed in people
we deem to be experts in their field. They have spent so long on the
learning pathway that they have amassed a collec on of skills,
pertaining to their area of interest, which enable them to transcend
their own leaning consciousness; unlocking areas of learning
previously unknown to both themselves and those immediately
around them.
At the risk of muddying the waters with a third metaphor, the expert climber who scales an unconquered
rock face, thus finding a pathway for others, is an excellent example of enlightened competence. No one
has ever ascended the obstacle before, and it is only the expert climber, who by virtue of their collec on
of unconscious competent skills, is able to fashion a previously unknown pathway.1

Learning Pathway Companions


Lets close this discussion of learning pathways by
talking about the company we keep. Returning to our
handy Wizard of Oz metaphor, its important to note
that Dorothy was not alone when she arrived at the field
of poppies. So when Dorothy and Toto fell into a deep
slumber the Tin Man and Scarecrow (immune to the
poppies because they were not made of flesh) were able
to carry them away to safer pastures.
Learning rarely takes place inside a bubble. More o en
than not a persons desire to learn is influenced (for good or ill) by those around them; family, friends
and work colleagues. Allow me to pose this ques on for your ongoing reflec on:

Does the company that YOU keep add or subtract to YOUR learning pathway?

These transcendent learners can make excellent teachers also. Because they so fully understand the skill they are teaching
they are able to guide fellow learners along learning pathways in a manner that is eec ve and expedient (Mata, 2004).

Dr Daniel K. Robinson 2015

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An honest answer to this ques on could be the dierence between successful learning outcomes and
an aborted journey with unrealised goals. When I sat down in my field of poppies while learning the
guitar I did not have the necessary encouragement to remain engaged with the instrument. Im careful
to not lay blame for this on anyoneit was what it was. However, things may have been dierent had
someone said, Sure you should do the singing thingbut dont neglect the guitar thing; youve s ll got
a long road of development ahead of you!
It is my great hope that my wri ng this ar cle oers you the opportunity to ac vely reflect on your
learning pathway. Perhaps you are a beginner singing student, and things have started to get
frustra ngly overwhelming when you consider how much there is to learn. Maybe like me with my guitar
youve reached a certain level of competence and youre about to sit down for a short rest. Or maybe
youre contempla ng the journey having not yet taken the first step. Regardless of where you are along
the learning pathway, I want to encourage you to keep going. You know this alreadyyou never actually
arrive. My hope for you however is that you achieve that wonderful state of enlightened competence
and in doing so accompany others on their journey of learning; helping them realise their personal goals
and dreams.
As for me and my guitarI chose to pick up my old ba le axe about two years ago and reengage with all
the wonders of playing an instrument. Time permi ng, I can foresee guitar lessons in my future; lessons
that will take me on to the next level of learning and hopefully, the next stage of competence.

Who is Dr Daniel K. Robinson?


Daniel is a freelance artist and educator. In 2011 Daniel completed his Doctor of Musical
Arts degree at the Queensland Conservatorium Grif ith University. He has served as
National Vice President (200911) and National Secretary for the Australian National
Association of Teachers of Singing (200611). Daniel is the principal Singing Voice
Specialist for Djarts (www.djarts.com.au) and presents workshops to singers across
Australia and abroad. Over the past two decades, while maintaining his own performance
career, Daniel has instructed thousands of voices. This vast experience enables Daniel to
effortlessly work with voices of all skill levels: beginners to professionals.


References
Baum, L. F. (1900). The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Chicago, IL: George M. Hill Company.
Mata, L. A. (2004). Conscious competence learning model: Four stages of learning theory
- unconscious incompetence to unconscious competence matrix - and other
theories and models for learning and change. Retrieved 8 April, 2015, from
http://www.businessballs.com/consciouscompetencelearningmodel.htm

Dr Daniel K. Robinson 2015

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