Mark Needham

Thoughts on Software Development

Book Club: The Dreyfus Model (Stuart and Hubert Dreyfus)

with 2 comments

In our latest book club we discussed the Dreyfus Model, a paper written in 1980 by Stuart and Hubert Dreyfus.

I’ve become quite intrigued by the Dreyfus Model particularly since reading about its applicability to software development in Andy Hunt’s Pragmatic Learning and Thinking and after looking through Pat Kua’s presentation on ‘Climbing the Dreyfus Ladder of Agile Practices‘ I thought it’d be interesting to study the original paper.

These are some of my thoughts and our discussion of the paper:

  • We discussed what actually counts as experience at a skill with regards to the idea that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at something, and Cam made an interesting observation that ‘if you don’t have a change of thinking from doing something then you haven’t had an experience‘. I really like this as a barometer to tell whether you’re actually learning something or just reapplying what you already know. I find pair programming is an excellent practice for encouraging this.

    From reading Talent is Overrated I learnt that the important thing is that the tasks you are doing are slightly more difficult than your current ability so that you are always stretching yourself.

  • I’ve learnt that it’s not actually possible to skip the levels on the Dreyfus model when learning a new skill – previously when I’ve looked at it I always thought that it should be possible to do that but from experience

    I think you always need to spend some time at each stage while you are finding your feet and this time can be unbelievably frustrating. I think it’s useful to recognise that this frustration is because you are a novice and don’t have a good way to problem solve yet and that it will get easier as you keep practicing.

    It’s interesting how this can be applied to some of the agile practices because all of them come from a higher level principle that we are trying to achieve but you won’t actually understand that principle until you have done the practice for a certain amount of time. At that stage you have a better understanding of why the practice is useful which allows you to choose when it is useful and when a different approach might be more effective.

  • We discussed whether you need to be a master to be able to teach a skill to people. I don’t think these are correlated and that actually to be able to teach someone the more important thing is your skill at teaching on the Dreyfus model. At school for example I often found that the better teachers were the ones who had the ability to explain things in a way that students could understand rather than being the absolute best at the skill themselves.
  • Dave mentioned that he is frequently asked how he knows a certain skill and has therefore started becoming more aware of how this happens so that he’s able to do this more effectively. I’ve often found that understanding the way that more experienced practitioners think about problems is far more useful than just asking them to solve a problem you’re having trouble with.
  • Before the session we arranged for a few of us to try and come up with the behaviours needed for different skills and where they fitted on the Dreyfus model. There was a unanimous feeling that this was actually really difficult which also suggested that you can have a level of skill at using and understanding the Dreyfus model! I think it would be quite useful to identify the behaviours that you want to acquire so that you have some sort of roadmap for developing your ability at a certain skill but we also discussed the fact that the Dreyfus model is actually very useful as a reflection tool when working out where your ability with a certain skill lies and how you can change that. I think tracking your improvement against the Dreyfus model would be far more effective than a typical performance review.
  • We spoke about beginner’s luck and how we ofen do things much better when we first start doing them as it is pretty much reflective without too much analysis which would potentially ruin our performance. At this stage we are unconsciously incompetent at the skill so we just do it. I think having some success at a skill due to this actually results in motivation to keep on improving and actually improving our skill level.

I think the Dreyfus model in general is a really cool thing to learn about although I found that the way it is presented in Pragmatic Learning and Thinking is more accessible than the original paper. It’s interesting that it was written about nearly 30 years ago and we don’t make use of it as much as we could.

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Written by Mark Needham

July 18th, 2009 at 10:40 am

Posted in Book Club

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