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OK, this post will be a little “heady” for a Saturday morning but I want to reference this topic for some other work I am going to do this fall. I am planning to do some non-trivial work to get some resources and links online to help kids get into doing projects and learning about things like physics, space science, and robotics/electronics – things if you know me, you know I’ve been into for a long time. The problem with the way kids learn about these topics nowadays is that it is mostly abstract, in theories, reading, or just “on paper.” To really learn more than trivia and facts about these topics you really need to “do” things with the science, not just learn things “about” them.

There are several articles or models from people that really affect the way I am going to approach things, and have impacted my thinking about the approach to learning things. I’ll hit each of them separately and then pull them all together later as kind of an approach for what I am going to try. None of these articles or their ideas should really come as a surprise to anyone – they make sense when you read them. But the authors do a great job of describing things in a depth and detail that I never could.

The first article and model is the Dreyfus Model – which is based originally on a report by Hubert Dreyfus and Stuart Dreyfus in the early 80s called “A Five-Stage Model of the Mental Activities Involved in Directed Skill Acquisition.” I’ll try to link to the study itself which is in a doc=GetTRDoc.pdf” target=”_blank”>PDF file (scanned in mirror 783k) – don’t read it yet, just follow along here for a minute.

This study was prepared initially for the Air Force Office of Scientific Research for the training of pilots, but its model and purpose has been used effectively for training everyone from pilots, to nurses, to chess players, foreign language learners, and even computer programmers (Google “Dreyfus Model” and will see lots of different results of people using it (and some people arguing against it)). I like it, so I am going to use it.

To keep this to as few words as possible, Dreyfus identifies five to seven stages of learning a new skill or domain:

  • Novice,
  • Advanced Beginner,
  • Competent,
  • Proficient,
  • Expert, and
  • Master.

I don’t know about you but I find that many people use terms like “Competent” and “Expert” in describing their skills but really have no objective model for putting them in one category or another. Some people move themselves from not knowing anything about a particular skill up to “Competent” just by reading a book about the topic. Others call themselves an “Expert” after completing one project using a particular skill or technology. I am reminded of an episode of “Monk” where the detective Adrian Monk is going on a boat and someone asks him if he can swim. He says he knows how to swim, and even produces a card from his wallet certifying him as a swimmer (from a correspondence course), but also admits he has never actually been in the water to try out his skills but thinks he’ll do fine. Some people are that way with technology and other domains where they have studied it in books and on the Internet but have never really “done” real-world things to use what they have learned. You learn by doing things, you don’t (can’t) really learn before you do something.

What this model does is two important things: (1) helps better define what these stages of learning mean and (2) explains a workable model for moving people from one stage to the next.

Briefly, the stages:


A novice is all about following rules – specific rules, without context or modification. You don’t need to “think” you just need to “do”. A rule is absolute, and must never be violated. The main thing to do here is to get experience following directions and doing the new skill. You can follow the instructions on a box of cake mix and hopefully produce a decent cake. All you are responsible for is following directions.

“To improve, the novice needs monitoring, either by self-observation or instructional feedback, so as to bring his behavior more and more completely into conformity with the rule.”

Advanced Beginner

Still rules based, but rules start to have situational conditions. In one situation you use one rule, in other situations you use another. The advanced beginner needs to be able to identify the limited need to selectively apply different rules. So if you want a chocolate cake, follow the chocolate rule(s), if you want a vanilla cake, follow the other rule(s). If you are over 5,000ft of altitude you will need to alter the amount of some ingredients. This is still a recipe, but has a few decision points. Again, follow the different “branches” of instructions and you should be fine. It is easy to see how this could collapse into a large Novice category, but it is a step before the much larger step to Competence.


You realize that your skill or domain is more complex than a series of rules and branches. You start to see patterns and principles (or aspects) rather than a discrete set of rules – rules become “rules of thumb”. You are lead more by your experience and active decision-making than by strictly following rules. What is developed now are guidelines that help direct competent individuals at a higher level. You now are accountable for your decisions as you are not following the strict rules and context of the previous stages. You’ve made a lot of cakes and have a number of recipes. When asked to make a cake of a different type you pull from experience the best way to put a new cake together. If the new cake doesn’t work out, you are responsible. This is the critical tipping point for most people when learning a new skill – and why most people never really become “competent” in most things they learn. Here you either need to decide to just “follow the rules” or spend the time to get fully involved with and take responsibility.

“Competence comes only after considerable experience actually coping with real situations …”


At this point your understanding of your skill or domain has become more of an instinct or intuition. You will do and try things because it just seems like the right thing to do (and you will most often be right). Instead of a discrete set of different parts you can perceive a complete system. A large amount of real-world experience will show you that there are often multiple competing solutions to a specific problem and you have a “gut feeling” about which is correct. “Calculation and rational analysis seem to disappear”. Will quickly know “what” needs to be done and then formulate how to do it.

Proficiency is developed by exposure to a “wide variety of typical whole situations.”


At this point you are not solving problems or making conscious decisions about things, you just “do” and it works. “Optimal performance becomes second nature.” People may ask you why you decided to do things “that way” and you may not know how to explain to them the 10 steps necessary to get from “A” to “B” because to you it was really just one step. Forcing an expert to detail the steps necessary before proceeding will often cause them to fail or second-guess. Here you think of grandma getting up at 6:00am and making biscuits from scratch for many, many years. She doesn’t measure, time, or probably even think about baking – she just does it, and it works. Very few people will attain this level in a particular skill or domain. Some estimates say 10-15 years in a particular area is required.

An Expert has experience that “is so vast that normally each specific situation immediately dictates an intuitively appropriate action.”


Mastery is mostly about style. A Master of something is really just an “Expert on a roll.” Sometimes you may have witnessed someone or spent time with someone who is so good at something, and gets so caught up in doing it, that you can’t help but feel that you are watching a genius at work. I’d also say a Master is an Expert who can look back and put themselves in a Novice’s shoes and create the rules, and do the monitoring/mentoring necessary to help them move forward. If you have met a Master you remember them – by name – they are rare and you would do well to spend as much time with them as possible. An Expert basketball player could be excellent at execution and without formal thought just picture the ball going through the hoop (and it does). But Michael Jordan could do it with such style, grace and physics-defying ease that you just had to stop everything and watch him when he was “in the groove.”

A Master “is capable of experiencing moments of intense absorption in his work, during which his performance transcends even its usual high level.”

The Point

If you’ve read this far, thanks, and I’ll get to the point (1,000+ words later) – I believe that too many people today are learning just enough to be considered an “Advanced Beginner” in the vast majority of topics. Painfully this is increasingly true in science, math and technology. If you know enough to “pass the test” then that is all you need to know. The No Child Left Behind law was designed to keep people accountable for learning. But instead of having students be able to become Competent or even Proficient in a handful of skills, we have instead created a system where we have students stuck at “Advanced Beginner” in many more subjects – and perhaps unable to move forward. We are teaching kids that it is enough to know “about” things, but not actually “do” things.

So what can we do about it? We need to catalog and create a list of resources that will help kids get from Novice to Competent in science, math, and technology – things that will get them active in doing projects and making the connections necessary to move ahead. A lofty goal, but attainable. Many people are seeing similar voids and doing things about it. Linking and teaming with them will be key in our success.

More on this to come …..


p.s. I need a good label for "Level 0" – before Novice – before you've ever really started learning about a particular topic.  "Ignorant" is cold, as is "Empty" – "Unaware" sounds judgmental.  If you haven't heard of Newton's Laws of Motion it most likely isn't your fault, but you aren't quite a "Novice" yet in its study.  Something positive like "ready" or "waiting"  or "willing" – ideas are welcome.