Another Perspective on Competence: The Dreyfus Model

Considering a five-stage schema for planning training in various disciplines

Building from the last post about conscious competence, a few words about another educational model.

In 1980 brothers Stuart and Hubert Dreyfus were researching how to best train Air Force pilots. In the course of this study, they developed a “five-stage model of the mental activities involved in directed skill acquisition.” Thanks to the miracle of the internet, you can download their original report in all its typewritten glory.

The Dreyfus brothers propose that as a student acquires a new skill through formal instruction and practice he must pass through five stages:

1. Novice
Lacking experience, the student is taught to recognize certain features of an environment. He is then given rules for deciding how to act in response to those features. He doesn’t understand what is going on, per se, but he can follow the steps he’s been taught. The stage is characterized by rigidly adhering to the rules and not exercising discretionary judgment.

2. Competence
One moves from the novice stage to competence after considerable experience in real situations with an instructor pointing our recurring patterns. The student begins to understand better the context and meaning of the rules he’d previously been taught. Still, all aspects of the work are treated separately with equal importance.

3. Proficiency
With increased practice, the student is now able to view the whole situation in connection to long-term goals, and various aspects of the situation become more or less important depending on their relevance to the goal. He is now in a position to judge which steps are more or less relevant to this particular situation, and deliberately plan based on the specific situation.

4. Expertise
Up to this point, students have relied on rules to know how to connect what is generally true to their specific situation. But an expert, relying on a great deal of experience, is in a position where the response to each specific situation is customized and intuitively appropriate (e.g. just conversing freely in a second language without deliberately following grammatical rules).

5. Mastery
Mastery is what happens when an expert is so absorbed in his work that his performance is able to transcend even its usual high level and “the expert, who no longer needs principles, can cease to pay conscious attention to his performance and can let all the mental energy previously used in monitoring his performance to go into producing almost instantaneously the appropriate perspective and its associated action” (Dreyfus, 14).

So, for example, consider preaching. A novice preacher is given ten steps for sermon preparation and mechanically uses them on each passage he comes to. A competent preacher, having a number of sermons under his belt, understands the value, say, of preparing the introduction after having completed the exegesis, but still follows the process carefully and gives equal weight to each step. A proficient preacher is following his ten steps, but knows when the passage’s grammar is obvious and when he needs to spend two hours doing a line diagram. He knows when the first three points that came to mind will fit and when he needs to labor to improve the structure. He knows when a given illustration will really illustrate and not distract. An expert preacher is probably touching each of the ten steps, but he isn’t thinking about that. He dives into a text without focusing on process, laboring to find the meaning, perhaps simultaneously accomplishing multiple steps, knowing just how to work with this text to bring God’s meaning to God’s people.

Applying the Dreyfus model to theological education reminds me that we need to carefully define what level of competence we are shooting for, and order our training in such a way to get there.

It’s not enough to say, we want our graduates to know how to preach. But at what level do we want graduates able to preach? Is competence the goal? is proficience? Is expertise? Then what kind of courses and directed training will be needed to get to the level we’ve defined as the target? These kinds of decisions shape curriculum.

And in a given program, we may desire different levels of proficiency for different subjects. In a pastoral training program, we may want someone at novice level for, say, OT backgrounds. We want them to be exposed to the subject and have an idea of where to go further, but that’s enough. But for other areas, such as exegesis, maybe we want graduates to leave proficient and well on their way to expertise. Ok. That shapes how we will spend the hours between here and there.

And then of course the question comes, how do we move students from one level to another? We’ve taught them the rules, but how do we move these novices toward competence? How do we push the competent to take the next step? If it’s about training not transfer, we need to ask such questions and labor to find wise answers in our context.

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