Learning Stages

*I found a very interesting classification of learning stages by Hubert Dreyfus through this article  that sets his classification against online learning.  Although learning is not linear , I think it is worth considering at least for the sake of confronting personal experience in teaching with others’ perspectives. 

Stage 1: Novice
The novice typically gets instruction in the basics of a subject. In the Humanities lectures are still the most popular means to deliver this instruction. Students at this stage are principally consumers being taught simple rules and being provided with some factual content.

Stage 2: Advanced Beginner
Students need to understand relevant contexts for the rules and facts they learn. At this stage students learn to make some sense of what was mere information. The instructor typically becomes a kind of coach, ‘who helps the student pick out and recognise the relevant aspects that organize and make sense of the material’ (p.35). Ideally the instructor explains and picks out important features of cases as they come up in the course of learning.

Stage 3: Competence
A competent student is able to select rules or perspectives appropriate to the situation. The learner takes on responsibility for the angle he or she takes. With this comes the risk of failure as well as the emotional and intellectual elation of success. Instructors act as role models at this stage: if the tutor is engaged emotionally in the learning process, he believes the students will be more likely to adopt this learning style (which he believes is appropriate – and he is surely right about this).

Stage 4: Proficiency
At this level students have made sufficient ‘situational discriminations’ (as well as having emotional involvement with the learning process) to recognize the problem that needs to be solved. They still have to figure out what the answer is to the problem and how best to approach it. This kind of discrimination is vital to developing as a thinker: the ways of approaching cases, theories, moves in argument, need to become second nature if a student is to handle the complexities of the subject and progress.

Stage 5: Expertise
The expert, in contrast to the proficient performer, sees what needs to be achieved, and, because of his or her vast repertoire of ‘situational discriminations’ also can see instantly how to achieve it. Dreyfus points out that an expert is capable of making far more refined and subtle discriminations than a merely proficient performer. The expert then tailors method and approach to the situation based on this refined discrimination and ability to break down cases to subclasses requiring specific responses:

‘This allows the immediate intuitive situational response that is characteristic of expertise.’ (p.42)

Stage 6: Mastery
This seems to me the highest level that Dreyfus describes, though he does go on to write about ‘Practical Wisdom’ as the seventh level. Mastery involves developing your own style. As Dreyfus points out, in music (and by implication, in other subject areas too) this almost always involves learning from an acknowledged master (actually he seems to say that it always involves this: ‘If you are training to become a performing musician, you have to work with an already recognized master’ (p.45) – this is probably too strong). But musicians have learnt that following one master is not usually as effective in developing mastery as following a range of masters sequentially. Learning from one master tends to produce imitators rather than creative individuals with their own style:

‘Working with several masters destablizes and confuses the apprentice so that he can no longer simply copy any one master’s style and so is forced to begin to develop a style of his own. In so doing he achieves the highest level of skill. Let us call it mastery.’ (p.46).

Stage 7 : ‘Practical Wisdom’
This is the assimilation into a cultural style. This stage seems different from the others described. Dreyfus is keen to stress that cultural style, which is ‘what makes us human beings and provides the background against which all other learning is possible’ (p.48), is passed on by embodied beings.


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