Training Concept You Need to Know: The Magic Window

The Constanzas earned their nickname in new hire training. Their constant bickering perfectly imitated George Constanza’s parents on the the TV show Seinfeld.

This argument was over a role play exercise.

“You’re not doing it right,” said Mrs. Constanza. She was breaking character to correct Mr. Constanza’s data entry error.

“You can’t see me! You’re on the phone!” yelled Mr. Constanza. He wanted none of Mrs. Constanza’s coaching as he struggled his way through entering the order.

“But you’re doing it wrong.”

“You can’t see me! You’re on the phone!”

The scene devolved into a stand off. Mr. Constanza kept trying to figure out the computer system. Mrs. Constanza retreated to another part of the training room.

The trainer watched the entire scene and did nothing. 

She was deliberately letting them fail to see if either one would make it through the magic window. 

The Learning Curve

It’s helpful to take a trip along the learning curve to understand why the trainer was standing back while the Constanzas went down in flames.

The learning curve consists of four distinct stages that were first identified by Noel Burch in the 1970s. They're known as the Four Stages of Competency: 

  1. Unconscious Incompetent: You don’t know what you don’t know.
  2. Conscious Incompetent: You know what you don’t know.
  3. Conscious Competent: You know what you know.
  4. Unconscious Competent: You don’t know what you know.

Most people can relate to these stages when they think about how they learned to drive a car. 

You were Unconscious Incompetent before you got behind the wheel. Driving may have seemed easy, or least it was more exciting than intimidating.

A specific situation jolted you into the Conscious Incompetent stage. This probably happened the first time you drove. Perhaps it was an oncoming car or stalling a manual transmission vehicle. 

Passing your driving test was the ultimate Conscious Competent moment. You were vividly aware of everything you did as the person in the passenger seat noted every move on a checklist. 

Today, you are a Unconscious Competent driver. You can get in your car, drive to work, and have no idea how you got there. Driving a car doesn’t take much brain power at all.


The Magic Window

The most important part of any learning process is the transition from Unconscious Incompetent to Conscious Incompetent.

I call this transition the Magic Window.

Learning is impossible unless a person makes this transition. People stuck in the Unconscious Incompetent stage don’t realize exactly what they have to learn, so they aren’t able to change behavior.

Which brings us back to the Constanzas. 

Neither one of them had made it through the magic window. They repeatedly failed at exercises yet couldn’t seem to grasp that they were falling behind. The rest of the new hire class made it through a long time ago. 

Pairing the Constanzas in the role play was a deliberate move. So was letting them work it out without providing feedback. The trainer was following an established protocol to give them one more chance to reach the Conscious Incompetent stage.


The Magic Window Protocol

There’s a protocol trainers should follow to move their learners through the magic window.

The first step is challenge

Learners need to experience a challenge so they move from Unconscious Incompetent to the Conscious Incompetent stage.

It might be a quiz, a hands-on activity, or even a difficult discussion question. 

An unfortunate side effect of challenge is learner confidence and motivation often takes a dive. Nobody likes to fail, especially if other people are around to see it.

It’s tough to balance challenge with learner self-esteem, but it’s essential.

Sadly, challenge alone isn’t always enough to help people move through the magic window. The Constanzas were challenged but didn’t realize they were struggling, even when they began falling behind their fellow new hires.

That’s when a second step is required: feedback.

This is when the trainer gives the participant specific feedback about their performance. A good trainer is careful to preserve the learner’s self-esteem, but is also direct in their assessment. They make it clear what aspects of performance need to be improved.

This direct feedback is often enough for the participant to realize they have some learning to do. Unfortunately, the Constanzas both found this feedback hard to accept. The trainer gave them feedback individually, but their reactions were remarkably similar.

They thought they were doing fine. They’d work harder to make sure they caught up. There was even a hint that the trainer needed to be more effective.

That’s when a third step is required: self-assessment.

At this stage, the trainer asks the participant to self-assess their performance. This shift to self-critique can often help a participant overcome self-esteem barriers and focus strictly on their performance. 

Some participants finally admit they're struggling. Others, like the Constanzas, continue to insist they’re doing just fine.

That’s when a fourth and final step is required: failure.

This step feels a bit harsh, but it’s also necessary. In this stage, the trainer allows the learner to fail on their own without a figurative safety net. (In situations where a literal safety net is required, this step would be cruel and should be avoided.)

In this particular class, the trainer paired the Constanzas together for a role-playing activity so other participants wouldn’t be affected. This gave them once last chance to break through the magic window. 

Unfortunately, neither one of them made it. They blamed each other. They blamed the trainer, the computer system, and the content. 

For them, the magic window remained closed.