4 Dreyfus model of skill acquisition

Different stages of skill acquisition

Hubert L. and Stuart E. Dreyfus refer to various studies of learning processes and claim that a person acquires skills by passing through different stages. They base their theory on empirical studies and observations of sensory-motor skills such as biking, swimming, aircraft piloting, and cognitive skills such as chess-playing. In the book “Mind Over Machine” (1986), they describe a stage model of skill acquisition:

Stage Characteristics Teacher
Expert The difference between the expert and the proficient performer is that the expert is immediately and intuitively capable of making the right decision, or seeing the right strategy or action to take. The action is based on a holistic evaluation of the situation. An expert teacher often has a broad experience from various schools and is quickly capable of understanding all aspects of a situation.
Proficient The proficient performer instantly sees the connection between earlier experiences and new situations. The reaction is immediate and intuitive. There is a correlation between intuition and analysis. Discretionary judgment and interpretation is more important than in the competent performer.
Competent The competent performer is capable of making choices and priorities in a situation, based on work experience. Some use of interpretation and discretion. The basis of experience is broader than that of the advanced beginner.
Advanced beginner The advanced beginner has more practical experience than the novice. Recognizes important dimensions and circumstances in a situation. A student teacher who is an advanced beginner (following a completed education), has experience from numerous lessons and different classes.
Novice A novice learns through demonstration and instruction. She learns that it is important to focus on particular rules, facts and traits in a situation. The novice’s learning situation is protected from “real life”. During the first practicum lesson, advice given by the mentor will determine the student teacher’s approach to teaching.

Hubert L. and Stuart E. Dreyfus argue that once an individual has acquired a skill, she can act without following rules, consciously or unconsciously. Neither is it necessary that she understands the purpose of the action. It is her body that reacts to the demands of the situation. In this, Dreyfus and Dreyfus (1999) are influenced by the philosopher Merleau-Ponty. According to Merleau-Ponty, “when one’s situation deviates from some optimal body-environment relationship, one’s activity takes one closer to that optimum and thereby relieves the “tension” of the deviation. One does not need to know, nor can one normally express, what that optimum is. One’s body is simply solicited by the situation to get into equilibrium with it” (Dreyfus 1998).


One example is how a skilled soccer playerimmediately understands when and how to dribble around the opponent (Tiller 2006). There is no indication that such a skilled soccer player has time to consider rules before dribbling. When Maradona dribbled around the entire English defence during the 1986 World Cup, he had not planned this in advance. Based on the situation, Maradona made a quick assessment whether to pass the ball or to continue dribbling. Maradona’s expertise can be linked to what is known as tacit knowledge. This implies that the knowledge is non-explicit; it can not always be communicated to others as rules or distinct recommendations. A masterful driver is “one” with her car, and a masterful teacher is “one” with her classroom. Compared to research done on rational decision making processes, little research has been done on intuitive decision making processes.

How to become an expert?

Towards the end of an online video presentation, Dreyfus stresses that in order to reach the expert stage, we need to take chances (as opposed to following routines). We do not become experts without making, and learning from, serious mistakes.


– Bakke, Kari Renate & Emil Severin Tønnesen (2007). Lave & Wenger og Dreyfus & Dreyfus. Master thesis. Oslo: University of Oslo http://www.duo.uio.no/sok/work.html?WORKID=62030
– Dreyfus, Hubert L., Dreyfus, Stuart E. og Tom Athanasiou (1986). Mind over machine : the power of human intuition and expertise in the era of the computer. New York: Free Press
– Tiller, Tom (2006). Aksjonslæring – forskende partnerskap i skolen : motoren i det nye læringsløftet. Kristiansand: Høgskoleforlaget