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

Posted Nov 18 2009 7:12am
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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