Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Does the Dreyfus Model of Skill Acquisition apply to Martial Arts?

As a former Nurse Tutor I am interested in the ways in which people learn, particularly the way they learn skills. As an educationalist I was particularly impressed by the work of an American nurse researcher who studied skill acquisition amongst nurses for a phD thesis and culminated in an important book called From novice to expert: Excellence and power in clinical nursing practice.[Benner, P. (1984). Menlo Park: Addison-Wesley, pp. 13-34.].

This work was based on the Dreyfus model of skill acquisition [Dreyfus, S.E & Dreyfus, H.L (1980)]. In their model they state:

"In acquiring a skill by means of instruction and experience, the student
normally passes through five developmental stages which we designate novice,
competence, proficiency, expertise and mastery. We argue, based on analysis
of careful descriptions of skill acquisition, that as the student becomes
skilled, he depends less on abstract principles and more on concrete
Benner renamed these 5 stages as: Novice, advanced beginner, competent, proficient and expert. As I am more familiar with Benner's work I will use her stages. The criteria for each stage remain the same as in Dreyfus's work.

I no longer work in Nurse Education but have started thinking about the model in relation to training in martial arts. Is it applicable to learning a martial art? The model has been applied to many different areas of training including nursing, flying, engineering, playing chess and learning languages. The model is applicable to any skill that ultimately requires the use of tacit knowledge and intuition. Tacit knowledge is that knowledge that can only be transmitted through training and personal experience. It cannot be told or written down. You just 'know it' or 'feel it' but can't explain how or why. The concepts of mushin, zanshin and kime come to mind here.

I think the model is entirely applicable to martial arts. Here is the model and how I think it applies to martial arts. The martial arts descriptors (in red) are my own analysis and opinion and have in no way been properly researched or tested. You may not agree with my analysis so please feel free to comment and give me your analysis.

The 5 stages:
1. Novice:
A novice has no previous experience of the situations in which they are expected to perform and relies on taught rules to help them perform. Rules are not prioritised and apply equally so a novice's response to a situation is limited and inflexible. No discretionary judgement is applied.

Martial arts application: The novice will learn the basic techniques of their art - various kicks, punches, stances, locks throws etc according to the 'rules' - correct arm, hand, foot positions; correct weight distribution etc. They will have no sense of how these techniques could be applied to a self-defence or 'sport' situation. They could not select an appropriate technique to a given attack unless directed what to do. (Probably applicable to white - orange belts depending on natural ability and speed of learning)

2. Advanced beginner: Advanced beginners are those who can demonstrate marginally acceptable performance, those who have coped with enough real situations to note, or to have pointed out to them by a mentor, the recurring meaningful situational components. These components require prior experience in actual situations for recognition. Principles to guide actions begin to be formulated. The principles are based on experience.

Martial arts application: The advanced beginner demonstrates acceptable performance of basic techniques and can start to apply them, with support and supervision, in pre-arranged sparring situations. He/she will have experience of a range of simulated attack techniques (strikes, strangles, wrist grabs, head locks etc) and be able to analyse the situation and select and perform an appropriate defence technique. Will be able to perform some kata in an acceptable way and be starting to analyse kata for applications. Will be starting to recognise principles of techniques. (Probably applicable from Green - purple belt)

3.Competent: Competence, typified by two or three years experience, develops when one begins to see his or her actions in terms of long-range goals or plans of which he or she is consciously aware. For the competent performer, a plan establishes a perspective, and the plan is based on considerable conscious, abstract, analytic contemplation of the problem. The conscious, deliberate planning that is characteristic of this skill level helps achieve efficiency and organization. The competent performer lacks the speed and flexibility of the proficient one but does have a feeling of mastery and the ability to cope with and manage many contingencies The competent performer does not yet have enough experience to recognize a situation in terms of an overall picture or in terms of which aspects are most salient, most important.

Martial arts application: The competent person is starting to become aware of the length of the 'journey' they have embarked on and starts to set themselves achievable goals and start taking more responsibility for their own learning in terms of working out what is is they want to get out of their training. Performs techniques with greater accuracy, strength and spirit. Can string techniques together in a reasonably fluid manner. Can analyse more complex attack situations and identify appropriate defence techniques without help. Starting to see bunkai applications in kata independently. Can 'free spar' competently using a range of techniques but has to think and plan every technique. Still uses rules to guide performance. (Probably applicable for brown/1st dan black belts.)

4. Proficient: The proficient performer perceives situations as wholes rather than in terms of chopped up parts or aspects, and performance is guided by maxims. Proficient performers understand a situation as a whole because they perceive its meaning in terms of long-term goals. The proficient performer learns from experience what typical events to expect in a given situation and how plans need to be modified in response to these events. The proficient performer can now recognize when the expected normal picture does not materialize. This holistic understanding improves the proficient performer's decision making - able to recognize the important aspects in a situation. He/she uses maxims as guides which reflect what would appear to the competent or novice performer as unintelligible nuances of the situation; they can mean one thing at one time and quite another thing later. Once one has a deep understanding of the situation overall, however, the maxim provides direction as to what must be taken into account.

Martial arts applications: The proficient person is able to 'read' a situation accurately (whether it be a real or simulated attack), decide what the priorities are and plan quickly how to deal with it. Techniques are performed fluidly, accurately and speedily. He/she feels greater 'ownership' of kata and is developing a greater understanding of the meanings within them. He/she has a more intuitive feel for distance and timing and is starting to understand and apply broader concepts such as kime (focus), mushin('empty mind') and zanchin (total awareness). (Probably applicable to mid dan grades)

5. Expert: The expert performer no longer relies on an analytic principle (rules, guidelines, maxims) to connect her or his understanding of the situation to an appropriate action. He/she now has an enormous background of experience and an intuitive grasp of each situation and zeroes in on the accurate region of the problem without wasteful consideration of a large range of unfruitful alternatives. The expert operates from a deep understanding of the total situation. They know what to do because "it feels right". The performer is no longer aware of features and rules and his/her performance becomes fluid and flexible and highly proficient. Intuition underpinned by tacit knowledge replaces direct analysis, though analysis continues to be used in novel situations or when events do not turn out as expected.

Martial arts application: The expert martial artist has truly internalised the physical, mental and spiritual aspects of their art so that they are completely in tune, allowing effortless and free-flowing movements together with a tacit understanding of the higher ideals of martial arts and how to achieve them. He/she has an intuitive grasp of every attack/defence situation and knows instinctively how to deal with them. He/she has moved to a position of calmness, truth and peace. (Probably applies to: only true masters)

As far as I know the Dreyfus model of skill acquisition has not been applied to martial arts before but has been applied to other sports, notably skiing and American football. My intention has only been to explore how this model may fit martial arts training and does not represent actual research into appropriate descriptors for each stage.

Where would I put myself in this model? For karate I think I am just entering the 'Competent' stage and expect to be there for a while. In kobudo I am definitely still a 'Novice'. Where do you think you are?

One thing to remember with any skill acquisition is that 'time expired' does not equate with 'experience'. Learning from experience is an active not passive process. One maxim we used to share with nurses was: 'You can have ten years experience (active learner) or one years experience repeated ten times (passive learner). Make your experience count.


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Indomitable Spirit said...

Hi Sue

Despite working in an institution which teaches Nursing, I'm not actually familiar with the Drefus Model. Clearly I must go and talk to our nurses about it!

It's certainly an interesting concept. I looked over the descriptors and your associated martial arts analyses and tried applying them to my own experiences of learning martial arts. On the whole, your analyses were pretty much borne out. That said, I think the 'boundaries' would be likely to become blurred, depending on a combination of the individual, the martial art and the instructor.

I do find it very interesting mapping on educational theory to learning martial arts. I am particularly interested in the impact of preferred learning styles, and also in the application of learning outcomes to martial arts curricula. The reason I've found the latter worthwhile is that I think it can help students see the various aspects of their grading syllabus as a coherent 'whole', rather than isolated techniques.

Thank you (again!) for an interesting concept.



Anonymous said...

As far as ju-jutsu is concerned I dare say I’m proficient, with weapons I’m still a novice and when it comes to kickboxing (Filipino boxing mainly) I’m somewhere between an advanced beginner and basic competence. As Avril remarked there aren’t really set boundaries and I find my skill-level fluctuating from training to training (not a lot but still) depending on minor factors like how well I slept the previous night, my uke and the general mood I’m in. Even over-eating or a night out has an impact on performance but on the whole skill remains with you and won’t really decrease dramatically, that’s if you keep training. Once I stopped training for a year or so and boy did I regret it: not only did my general fitness and well-being decline, when I came back I felt like a beginner all over again (especially with the locks since it requires fine tactile skills) although competence returned fairly quickly. When it comes to martial-arts I guess you don’t really lose what you’ve learned (the reason why people who quit martial-arts are still able to defend themselves years later, especially if they were of higher rank), you just get rusty and you need a reminder and a kick in the butt to get you going again.

I didn’t really need a psychological model to understand the different stages of proficiency, like a lot if not all psychology this is fairly obvious (‘duh’ does come to mind) and it doesn’t really add to people’s knowledge it just clarifies it and makes it explicit. Even in the martial-arts themselves this gradual progress is recognized through the belt system and there’s at least a basic distinction made between beginners, advanced students and masters progressing through grandmasters (renshi, kyoshi,hanshi, shihan depending on the system) as one progresses through the higher Dan-levels. In our dojo we only have 6 kyu-levels (not enough for my taste but that’s another matter entirely) and we regard white to orange as beginners, blue and brown are considered advanced students and green is somewhere in between (you could call it advanced beginner in your terminology). Making a clear and obvious distinction between students serves a very practical purpose: a) a lower belt clearly signifies this person is not very experienced yet and thus should be dealt with carefully and with patience and b) depending on the people in the class (their number and level) it allows the teacher to split up the group and teach according to the level of competence and experience. ...

Anonymous said...

That is why a curriculum should be carefully thought out and construed in such a way that there is a logical progression from basic and easy techniques (attacks, defenses) to complex and difficult ones along with a demand of higher proficiency in sparring and other exercises as you progress through the ranks. Some techniques just aren’t meant to be taught to beginners or even intermediate students (weapon-defenses, sacrifice-throws, necklocks) both because of pedagogical reasons (first master the basics, only then will you be able to grasp the more difficult concepts) and because safety comes first. You do not want to put a weapon in the hands of a beginner, at least not in a primarily unarmed system where the great majority of time is devoted to unarmed skills and there isn’t time to let them get thoroughly acquainted with correct body-posture, movement and control. I know some systems like kobudo and escrima have a different opinion but in my view it’s still better to first teach the unarmed part of the curriculum since it develops basic physical and mental attributes without an increased risk of injuries (no matter how you look at it I’d much rather be hit with a fist than a stick) and in our society people don’t generally carry weapons (or are allowed to carry weapons) so the first line of defence still consists of your hands and feet.

I fully agree with you time spent doing something does not automatically equate to an increase in skill-level: there are many factors that influence one’s progression such as natural talent (at least in the beginning), will, physical fitness, motivation… That is why even though there’s usually a fixed time-period between belt-testing (you don’t get to test for orange until you’ve spend at least 6 months as a yellow belt) there’s still an exam to be taken to actually test one’s skills and see if they’re acceptable for the level the belt represents. I don’t think testing should ever be compulsory since people learn at different rates and some just aren’t interested in progressing through the ranks, that’s fine and should be recognized although it is far easier for the teacher if everyone gets with the program and tests regularly (even if it’s just for organizational reasons). Still taking tests takes courage and one of the main goals in the martial-arts is to develop a sense of confidence in oneself and one’s skills and self-reliance since your sensei will not be there if and when trouble ensues.


Sue C said...

Hi Avril.

You may find nurses are more familiar with the model through Pat Benner rather than directly with Dreyfus. Dreyfus's paper is a bit 'dry' to read and full of psychological jargon. Pat Benner's is more accessible. However the model is American in origin and may not have been taught widely in British Nursing Schools.

I agree in reality the boundaries between stages might be a bit blurred. With many MA systems testing purely on technical ability, it would be quite possible for a high ranking kyu grade or even low dan grade to demonstrate good technical ability in a range of isolated techniques without having any sense of the bigger picture, or be able to react instinctively or intuitively in unrehearsed situations and have no knowledge or understanding of where their art comes from. They may look good but on the scale of skill acquisition they may still be advanced beginners.

I think a lot of MA clubs are good at teaching technical skills but fail to help their students achieve the higher level of more cognitive skills necessary to become truely proficient. Some students will read, think and reflect on their MA abilities themselves so they can learn how to move forward (active learners) wheras others will remain merely 'technicians' (passive learners).

Models like these can help instructors to think about ways in which they can push their more senior students to help them develop the higher mental skills that they need.

Thanks for your comments Avril - always insightful and balanced.

Sue C said...

Hi Zara

You say that you don't need psychological models to understand stages of proficiency but you've used the model to stage your own levels of proficiency in relation to the different MAs that you do. You may want to argue that the belt system serves the same purpose as the model - you can see at a glance how experienced and proficient someone is by looking at the colour of their belt - or can you? I think the belt system is a much more crude indicator of ability level than the Drayfus model - and much more variable between systems. Take you and me - we are both currently brown belts but in different systems. You have 8 years experience, I have only 2.5years. It is likely that you have a high skill level for your belt than I have for mine. You rated yourself as 'proficient', I rated myself as 'just into competent'. Yet we wear the same belt. A model like Dreyfus's allows us to compare people across systems. It also enables us to develop progressive curriculums that not only develop technical skill but higher congnitive skills as well.

Of course this then opens up the debate on whether children should be black belts. According to the model a shodan should be functioning at the higher end of competence/lower end of proficiency if very good but functioning at this level requires quite a high degree of maturity - can a 9 or 10 yr old blackbelt show this level of maturity? Many would argue not. Others would argue that a 'junior black belt' is not meant to be equivelent to an adult black belt and should not be compared. However this is probably moving onto another topic!

Thanks for sharing you thoughts and opinions - you always give me something to think about!

Dan Prager said...

I think it's a helpful model. Of course martial arts consist of many skills, so one may be at different levels with respect to different skills.

I am also interested in transferable skills; important if our martial arts training is to serve us in the rest of our lives.

Also see the Dunning-Kreuger effect for the perils of self-rating, or watch the early epsiodes of any of the various talent quest shows: Idol, So You Think You can Dance, etc.

Sue C said...

Hi Dan, that Dunning-Kreuger effect is very interesting. Now I'm having a crisis of confidence- am I overestimating or underestimating my ability? I don't know!!:-)

Matt "Ikigai" said...

Very interesting Sue! I enjoyed your thoughts and analysis here.

Sue C said...

Hi Matt - I always like to keep everybodies brain cells working! Thanks for dropping by.


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