Leading Edge Training Solutions

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Subject Matter Experts don’t always make good Trainers

It happens often, and I can understand why. A person becomes the Subject Matter Expert (SME) in his or her field of expertise and as a result is chosen to train the new team members. In many cases however, the learner is frustrated – the teacher is going too fast, assumes prior knowledge, doesn’t give sufficient practice, doesn’t give helpful feed-back on progress. It’s not the SMEs fault. Far from it, they have the knowledge and skills on the subject matter but have never been taught the knowledge and skills required to facilitate a learning process.

A simple and yet immensely helpful concept, is for a SME to realise that they could be ‘unconsciously competent’. This occurs when a subject matter expert is so far ahead of the learner, that they are no longer conscious of the small steps or concepts the learner needs to acquire the new material.

We teach this concept and more, in our 2 day ‘On-Job Trainer’ course. The idea is documented in a model of learning called the Competence (or Learning) Ladder, although the diagrammatic representation is more like Competence Steps to me. The Model is attributed to a number of people and organisations but seems to have been first documented in 1969 by Martin Broadwell in the ‘Gospel Guardian’, an American Christian periodical.

When I was first introduced to the four-step model, some 18 years ago, I felt there should be a fifth step and added this to my own model. I have since seen others introduce a fifth step as well. Here is my version –

On the first step, Unconscious Incompetence, learners don’t know that they don’t know.
On the second, Conscious Incompetence, they are aware that they don’t know the subject.
On the third, Conscious Competence, they know how but have to concentrate to get it right.
On the fourth, Unconscious Competence, they are experienced and can do without thinking.
On the fifth, Conscious of Unconscious Competence, they are able to revisit stage 3 and teach others. Not every SME reaches this level, to do so usually requires the trainer/facilitator skills typically taught on an ‘On-Job Trainer’ course.

I have a more detailed and helpful article if you are interested. Give me a call or use our ‘Contact Us’ form.

Competence Ladder