How to make mashed potato (or why conscious competence counts when you are cooking)

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When my eleven year old son rang me at work the other day, my heart sank. A call at work normally signals a disaster. Detention, the dog eating the remote control, the list is long and varied.

But this time he was quick to get to the point. “Small or big potatoes, Mum?” That morning I’d asked him to peel some potatoes ready to make sausage and mash that night. new_potatoes__large

I knew he knew how to peel a potato, but it hadn’t occurred to me that he didn’t know there was a difference between new and old potatoes. Within a few minutes we’d established that big potatoes were essential, putting them into cold water would stop them going brown and the spuds were stored in the cupboard with the tins.

Learning to cook is just one of the life skills I want my children to master, after all who wants to live on Pot Noodle for a lifetime? But knowing how we learn any skill is essential to mastering it and teaching it to others.

When I recounted the potato conversation to a colleague she referred me to the conscious competency model here, which really struck a chord when it comes to cooking.

So after lengthy discussion with my children, we decided to map out the stages of the process for learning to cook.

Stage One – Unconscious Incompetence, that of not knowing the skill exists or that you have any skills deficiency was clearly defined by my daughter. “That’s just thinking that food pops up on the table Mum, or you get it from McDonalds. Or maybe thinking making cereal is cooking, but nobody can eat cereal forever.”

Stage Two – Conscious Incompetence we all agreed was knowing what you don’t know. “I know how to make toast, but I don’t know how to make bread” summed it up in a sentence.

Stage Three – Conscious Competence was summed up again by my seven year old daughter. “I know how to make a salad, because I have practised it but I really have to think about it, especially when I am using the really big knife.” (Even writing that scared me, but she is well supervised!)

Stage Four – Unconscious Competence, knowing how to do something so automatically that you can do two things at once, was captured by son number two. “That’s when you are making spaghetti Bolognese, talking to me and dancing to Footloose at the same time Mum and I want to be able to do it, but I won’t be dancing to that!”


Ignoring the insult to an 80s classic, that is a fair summary of the process and it applies in many areas of learning, including mastering skills like driving a car and learning a new job or skill in the classroom.

Mastering each step and understanding how each stage can impact on progress and also on emotions through the learning experience is essential. But the speed of learning varies by individual, depending on the learner (hands up who didn’t pass their driving test first time?) And this needs to be reflected in any learning environment, so the basics become embedded, before the learning moves onto enriching and gaining mastery or to acquiring the next set of skills.

And the next challenge when you’ve reached unconscious competent? How to keep those skills fresh and not become complacent by trying new foods, new methods or just a new recipe book. Or as all my children optimistically suggested “Well Mum you could always go on Masterchef!”


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