Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Learn to learn before you teach

In Learn to forget I mentioned The Dreyfus Model of Skills Acquisition. In this blog-post I will elaborate on my thoughts on this model.


The Dreyfus Model of Skills Acquisition is divided into five skill levels:

  • Novice - No previous experience

  • Advanced Beginner - Step by step

  • Competent - Goal oriented

  • Proficient - Conceptual models / metaphors

  • Expert - Work from intuition

The model dictates that at any given time with any given skill you are belonging to a certain skill level. Depending on what skill level you belong to your behavior will be different. It will be different in the way you act and also how you learn and progress.

As a novice piano player I will not be able to play a song that I hear on the radio by ear, instead I need to know how to play the scale first to understand what sound comes from pressing a key, as a advanced beginner I can play by numbers, when I am competent I can follow musical notes, when I am proficient I can play from a never before seen musical notes and when I am an expert I make my own arrangements to a known song by heart or play by ear etc.


By understanding how learning works you can yourself become a better student and able to coach your teachers so that they can help you progress. On my current consultancy assignment I am in many aspects a novice, but by understanding how I learn, I can progress faster.


By understanding how learning works your teaching skills will dramatically improve. If you can identify what skill level a perticular student resides at you can adjust your teaching so that it fits. An advanced beginner system administrator may need a step by step guide on trouble shooting desribing how to start an application etc. while an expert system administrator may only need pointer to what area the problem could be in.

one size fits all

Often software documentation is written as "one size fits all" and this is most definitely not true. This results in that either it is too abstract or to detailed for a certain user. If you teach a small group you can adjust your learning to the particpating individuals, but what if you teach a big group?

An example of this can be seen in martial arts. Karate is often thought in a classic step-by-step manor, since you have large classes where it is impossible to adjust to fit all students, you try too find a medium level that everybody has to follow, this will often attract novice to competent students but will push-away proficient and expert students since they feel that they don't develop. In Filipino martial arts you have smaller classes where the teacher can coach/mentor individual students based on their present skill level, this will make it possible for everybody to develop faster and also retain the proficient students.


I have found the model useful at several times when acting as a technical project manager and interacting with the product owners and business representatives. Instead of speaking in the language of a technical proficient person I speak in the language of a technical novice and a advanced beginner business person and guide my counterpart to speak in advanced beginner business language so that we will understand eachother. This one of the basic reasons to why business and technical representatives normally don't understand each other, they don't speak the same language. This is also one of the reasons why software development methodologies who focus on customer collaboration and delivering business values works so well , let business prioritize business values of features and let technical estimate and implement it and offer a common language for understanding eachother.


The way I was presented with the model at a seminar lately it was stated that the progression from novice to competent is rather linear and straight forward and that you can progress almost automatically but that the step to proficient and then to expert is non-linear and also requires a decsion and proactive behavior. You must decide for yourself that you want to progress. Maybe this can be connected to Rober Dilts Neuro-Logical Levels that I wrote about in Sustainable change. The higher your skill level are the more you must internalize it in your upper-levels, to become proficient or an expert you must make it a part of your values and beliefs or identity. A proficient person can explain and discuss his area of skills using metaphors and this requires a higher degree of internalization compared to behavior which is "just" something you do but cannot always explain.

I can really recommend you too explore The Dreyfus Model of Skills Acquisition, it has many answers to your everyday problems!

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