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The Dreyfus Model experiment

A few weeks ago, several coworkers and I went to the No Fluff Just Stuff Conference (overviews here, here, and here.) During the conference, I got to hear Dave Thomas speak about the Dreyfus Model for Skills Acquisition. A lot sounded familiar, and that was because Dave touched on a lot of the same points Andy Hunt did when he spoke at a CharJUG event in Charlotte.

For those not familiar with the Dreyfus Model, it is a model of skills acquisition that describes how people progress in their knowledge. There are five levels to the model, summarized as:

  • Novice – Needs to be told exactly what to do. Very little context to base decisions off of.
  • Advanced beginner – Has more context for decisions, but still needs rigid guidelines to follow.
  • Competent – Begins to question the reasoning behind the tasks, and can see longer term consequences.
  • Proficient – Still relies on rules, but able to seperate what is most important.
  • Expert – Works mainly on intuition, except in circumstances where problems occur

During the talk, Dave challenged us to an experiment. He asked us to watch closely over the next few weeks the conversations we have. When we are involved in a discussion, mark on each participants head a number in (imaginary!) magic marker which is the Dreyfus level you think of them at. Also put a (imaginary!) number on your head of your own Dreyfus level. Then, tailor the conversation to that. If you are the lower number one, bring the conversation to your level. Conversely, be sure you aren’t talking over the heads – and needs – of the other participants.

The very next week I was working with my pair on some PL/SQL unit tests, which I had very little experience with. One of our development DBAs offered some advice which got us past this problem we were having. He then suggested that it might be a good idea to test another part of the procedure we were working on. But, he wanted us to make the decision of whether we should test it ourselves. After going back and forth for a minute or two of whether we should do it, the Dreyfus model experiement popped into my head. I immediately realized he was at least a four, and I was a one (at most).

Recognizing the situation, I turned to him and said, “I appreciate the teaching style you are using to get us to understand this problem. However, right now, I just need to be told what to do.” Immediately he understood where we were at, and explained his reasoning behind what he was asking about. This enabled our pair to follow a specific path and acheive a win, while understanding a little more about the system at hand.

I challenge you all to do the same. In your conversations with your coworkers, think about what they – or you – need out of it based on the Dreyfus model, and tailor the conversation to it. You might just find yourself getting your points across clearer and faster.


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  • Michael Finney November 30, 2008, 4:00 pm

    Nice summary and thanks for sharing your experience. Nice.