The journey of skilling up – The Dreyfus Model

One of the interesting things I read a while back was the stages of a novice towards the expert level of skill acquisition.

Have you ever thought about how a person forms during their profession or the internal stages of development?

Obviously, the person who just started a new profession or hobby is a newbie compared to an expert who’s been at it for a while. However, what about their mindset when they’re entering into a new field? This is known as the “Five Dreyfus Model Stages” or “Dreyfus Model Skill of Acquisition”.

Before we head any further let’s define a certain term, Experience.
Experience is defined towards an event that leaves an impression or changes the way of thinking onto that person.

Now the funny thing is, it’s not all just ‘know more, gain more’, according to the two researchers Stuart and Hubert Dreyfus. It’s about how the difference of thinking before and after changes in how the world is observed.

There are about five stages to the model:

  • Novices
  • Advanced Beginners
  • Competent
  • Proficient
  • Expert

You could state that:

  1. Novices know nothing and are completely new players to the team
  2. The advanced beginners are the people that know a little bit, however are still new.
  3. Competent people know the subject matter to some degree and can troubleshoot the problem.
  4. Proficient people know and understand the situation.
  5. Experts are the ‘know it all’.

This is fairly obvious and common sense, however there is a lot more than it really is. Let’s apply an example applied to a work business environment of what revolves around these five levels.

Let’s say that the team is from a software development/ business analyst background and a client from a private transit specializing in trains (don’t ask how they have their own private rail-line) asks the manager to analyse their current processes and improve their system.

The team of two novices, one advanced beginner, two competent people and one proficient is tasked towards the job.

Now revolving around the novices; who have no idea being the new players on the team with no experience. Asks the competent people who are second to the team leader on what to do.

One competent who is named Josh, directs the novice Joey with contextual instructions on what to do. Whereas the other competent person, Brandon, directs the other novice Boey with contextually-free instructions in order to do the job.


As a result Joey becomes cluttered and tries to understand what to do, while Boey immediately gets to work. Joey finally understands the goal, discarding any context and gets to work.

Both discard any context in fact.

Novices have the mindset of concern and wanting to accomplish a goal that is immediate. They are not sure whether it will turn out okay and will respond to instructions to an exact format.

When I say exact format, I mean in steps A, B and C, like a method. And this is normal, with so little experience to guide them. When step A is finished, however, step B encounters a slight problem. They are struck with confusion and tend to be vulnerable unless given a recipe like if X happens then Y for troubleshooting.

With context-free instructions, they are in fact more effective giving the novices some measure of capability. But there are only so many rules that a person can comprehend in which leads to an issue known as infinite regression. Although they can get you started in the field, it won’t carry you any further.

Back to the story, the advanced beginner Latte. Attempts his objective feeling that “Hang on, this isn’t right”, and decides to try something a little different than the instruction given by the team leader. Asking for minor guidance from Josh and Brandon, he understands and uses the advice in the correct context. Building from that overall principle, Latte still does not understand the “Big Picture” of what the client actually wants.

An interesting concept is that although advanced beginners understand their instruction in the correct context, they have little experience to refer to and still dismiss any context if forced upon them.

For example, the supervisor calls a meeting and presents contextually heavy information relating to project budget, time-frame and company resources. Many of the people who are less experienced will dismiss it as irrelevant to their individual job at hand.


Where of course, it is relevant and can indicate whether the project will fail or not and where the company will head, indicating if you still have a job or not at the end.

There is a lack of connection from the lower levels of the Dreyfus Model.

The two competent people Josh and Brandon attempting objectives D, E, F through to I are met with obstacles are every turn. With some degree of knowledge and experience, they troubleshoot and deal with the obstacle accordingly. As they reach objectives F and G, they are met with unknown territory. They then seek out advice from their team leader and higher ups using that information effectively.

You may notice at stage 3, competent people begin to seek out and solve problems on their own, basing their skills on past experience and heavy planning. Just before  Josh and Brandon seek for guidance. They both have trouble attempting to determine which is more important than another when problem solving. And although they grasp their awareness in context, they don’t have that ability for self-correction. This leads to the team leader’s skill level. Proficient.

The team leader Arrow needs the bigger picture for the job to be done. Arrow builds his skill around what he learns from the context, wanting to understand further in their endeavor to the project. When novice Joe informs Arrow about objective A. Arrow notices that Joe expresses in an oversimplified manner, he instead gets frustrated and reviews the team’s progress.

The notable idea is Arrow’s ability to correct both himself and people’s performance, including the reflection of how it’s to be done better. Interestingly, self-improvement was simply not there from the lower levels of the team and having this skill is a major breakthrough in the Dreyfus model. Where Arrow is able to read, and understand failed projects, case-studies  and learn from stories even though he has not participated in that event.

Compared to a software situation where “Testing everything that breaks”. A novice will perceive this as a recipe and ask himself, “What should I test? Everything?”. And will end up testing irrelevant parts. Whereas the proficient person will know what may be likely to break. Understanding that statement in context.

Seeing the difference? In a team environment that is normally a mixture of levels.

Lastly is the expert, they are in this story, not in the team however managing the team leaders. They are working on more severe problems of the project and coordinating the ideas over. Experts are generally, primary sources of knowledge who look for better methods in terms of efficiency or effectiveness. Having an “infinite-like” level of experience, the expert can apply into any given context.P2-TheExpert

Instead of working on objectives A through to Z, they work on missions one, two and
three. The expert who is working on severe error-prone problems, taps into their intuition removing and reducing error into a more doable problem.

There should be a note that experts are not omnipotent in their field and can make mistakes just like anyone else, subjective to bias and likely to disagree in topics within their field.

Amazingly, it’s easy to derail an expert. The trick is:

Make them follow instructions and rules

An experiment from the Dreyfus model made the experts draw up a line of rules for the novices, the novices followed them and improved significantly, but when the experts follow their own rules, they’re measure of performance degrades significantly.
The key thumb is that: Novices follow rules, Experts follow intuition. 

Here’s a random pointer I drew.

Where this applies to you as the reader? Everywhere.

It should be noted that the positions do not apply in the story I was explaining, simply as a guideline and relevance.

If you have survived the long read and interested, the information was from the Pragmatic Thinking & Learning by Andy Hunt.

I will be blogging every 3 to 4 days at a random time.

See ya in the next post.

Edward Luu



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