Dreyfus Model of Skill Acquisition

One of my main motivations for starting this site was to discuss some of the mental models that I use to think about dancing.  I previously referenced my reasons for calling the blog “Black Belt Lindy,” which implies the use of the martial arts as a model.  Unfortunately, the belt system in martial arts is a system of colors and can be fluid in the meaning of certain colors.

About a year ago, I read Andy Hunt’s “Pragmatic Thinking and Learning” which stimulated an avalanche of thinking and re-thinking.  It’s nominally about computer programming, in that it’s written from the perspective of a programmer and a lot of the examples reference programming, but the lessons are quite easily applied to things like dancing.

Today I’d like to focus on a single idea I was exposed to: The Dreyfus Model of Skill Acquisition.
The idea behind this model is to classify someone’s skill level so as to better give an instructor guidance on what a student needs to work on to advance.  Here’s the description from the wikipedia page on the Dreyfus Model:

A helpful summary of the model is provided by Eraut (1994)[2]:
1 Novice

  • rigid adherence to rules
  • no discretional judgment

2 Advanced beginner

  • situational perception still limited
  • all aspects of work are treated separately and given equal importance

3 Competent

  • coping with crowdedness (multiple activity, information)
  • now partially sees action as part of longer term goals
  • conscious, deliberate planning

4 Proficient

  • holistic view of situation, rather than in terms of aspects
  • sees what is most important in a situation
  • uses maxims for guidance, meaning of maxims may vary according to situation

5 Expert

  • no longer reliant on rules, guidelines, maxims
  • intuitive grasp of situation, based on tacit knowledge
  • vision of what is possible

6 Proficient Expert

  • Knows the evidence base and underpinning knowledge to entirety
  • Can teach the skill to others
  • Can utilise the skill interlinked with other skills

This is evocative of so many memories!  Being a novice all all about needing the rules explained.  Ever remember a someone asking, “How do I know when to do six or eight count footwork?”  Someone looking for a hard and fast rule is placing themselves solidly in the novice range.
What about the inability to understand priorities?  I remember acting as a teaching assistant at a workshop and asking the instructor what the priorities in fixing problems were.  Frame before footwork?  Footwork before lead?  The inability to prioritize the focus of my instruction was the mark of an Advanced Beginner.
As we shade into Competent practitioners, we start to see more of the big picture.  We can see how decisions we make in our dancing affect the aesthetics.  How actions in one part of a move affect latter parts.  How the end of one move naturally feeds into the beginning of another.  How changes in the music should elicit changes in the dancing.  How the structure of the music helps us to anticipate future decisions we’ll be making.
I don’t claim to be a Proficient practitioner, though maybe I’m shading towards this level.  I’ll be working for a while at getting enough practical experience to really claim this.  At this level, rules get abstracted into maxims, which might be so nuanced as to seem meaningless to the Novice.  One I’ve heard is, “Dance the way you walk.”  That meant almost to nothing to me until I was shown a practical application.
OK, so how does this help us become better dancers?  Well, I’ve never talked to someone in swing dancing who’s heard of this model, so I kind of doubt any workshops will be adopting it to mark teaching levels.  To be honest, I’ve never talked to anyone who’s heard of this model, so it’s not something unique to swing dancing.  What it can help us do is to better understand where we are in the process of learning.  It’s actually a continuous spectrum, not a series of discrete steps, so you may have characteristics of multiple levels.
I’m classing myself as a Competent shading towards Proficient swing dancer.  I can very quickly see whether someone is fitting my aesthetic sense and kinesthetic sense of “good dancing,” and figure out why with minimal review.  I’m someone who’s able to think before I walk, so I feel like I grasp some of the ideas behind being Proficient while I lack a lot of the experience.  For example, I’m usually fine on the social floor at most speeds, but tend to freeze up when asked to jump in and do 8-8’s in the middle of a song.  I need a lot more practical experience before that becomes a natural part of my dancing.  I’ve spent most of the past 18 months ironing out my basics and adding in rhythm changes and very minor footwork variations as my styling.  I need to add a lot more styling variations and get comfortable with them as part of a “flash” library.  My personal style tends to be more subtle so I need to be more comfortable with a “bigger” style if I want to compete.  My reactions aren’t geared towards “listening” to an assertive follow telling me she needs extra time or wants to play with a theme.  I need a lot more practice at being responsive to this.
So let me throw this out there.  Where do you rank yourself as a swing dancer at the moment?  Do you have any specific memories that are linked to anchoring you at a point in time to a specific characteristic in the Dreyfus model?

How does this affect your thoughts on basics vs. styling?

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4 thoughts on “Dreyfus Model of Skill Acquisition”

  1. Wow, this is a big one. 🙂 interesting ideas. This is great if you want to be methodical and categorical about learning, but I’d be careful about focusing solely on acquiring skills to “improve” – don’t forget that swing dancing is a street dance and that personal expression is a critical element. You don’t necessarily need flashier moves or better technique to do well in competitions – showing personality, having fun, and projecting confidence are often far more important. I think those elements are what frequently distinguishes proficient dancers from expert ones.

  2. Snookie:
    Ha! I definitely like to be methodical and structured about my learning. I think the power of a model like this is to help understand and evaluate ourselves as dancers, while understanding that real life is a spectrum, not something where we can fit ourselves into strict categories. In addition, the model can be applied to smaller skills, like footwork variations, or broader themes, like expressing personality.

    I really like what you say about competition. I think it’s probably a trap to think about demonstrating the maximum number of moves and stylings as quickly as possible as the key to success as a dancer. When I think about moves, variations, and styling, I think about it as a vocabulary for expression. It’s important for me to relate it to expression, trying things with different partners, music, attitude, etc so that when the perfect moment comes, what I’ve practiced just flows out… Does that make more sense than, “I need to perfect this list of moves to win competition X” (which isn’t at all what I was trying to express)?

    Is it possible to think about what you see as important as skills in their own right? We could dance a sequence of moves with good technique but without injecting our personalities, visually expressing a sense of fun, or projecting confidence. And since we can name those things, isn’t there room for thinking about how those things are done? How they’re practiced? How they’re taught? That’s my re-framing. I think they’re artistic skills. 🙂

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