Dreyfus’s Stage Theory of Expertise

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The essence of decision making has been eluding the researchers for the long period of time already, with several theoretical approaches proposed to address it. In particular, the apparently ‘automatic’ and intuitive decision making by the experts, i.e. the individuals specifically proficient in the respective fields of activity, has always baffled the researchers. The concept of intuition, i.e. “the rapid understanding shown by individuals,…when they face a problem” (Gobet & Chassy, 2009, p.151), has been utilized by a number of theorists to untangle the relationship between expertise acquisition and its subsequent demonstration in the experts’ praxis (see Kinchin & Cabot, 2010, pp.155-156 for the further discussion). In particular, the Dreyfus model of stage experiential learning and skill acquisition has been regarded as some of the most significant contributions to this area of study (Benner, 2001). Therefore it would be fruitful to critically analyze and discuss it.

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The core of Dreyfus’s theory lies in the conceptualization the five specific stages, with their corresponding modes of cognition and praxis, which a learning individual may pass in the course of his/her expertise development. Two initial stages that rely on the analytical forms of learning encompass include the novice stage, characterized by the student’s capacity to recognize certain context-free features of his/her research object and to apply them to practice in accordance with the rules specified; and the advanced beginner’s stage, wherein the student progressively gains ability to comprehend the additional aspects of the learning situation or subject that are dependent on particular contexts, i.e. its situational features (S. E. Dreyfus & H. L. Dreyfus, 1980, p.7; Dreyfus, 2004a, p.177). Further stages of the student’s proficiency development involve the emergence of competence, or proficiency (Stages 3-4), which is characterized by the growing emphasis on the long-term learning and practical goals, deliberate planning, and the capacity to undertake the informed actions in the context of crowdedness (Kinchin & Cabot, 2010). Finally, Stage 5 (Expert) is conceived in terms of the individual’s capacity to recognize similarities in the situations’ conditions and of the greater understanding of the situation or the phenomenon’s experiential context (Daley, 1999).

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Later, two more stages of proficiency development were added by Dreyfus, these being Mastery (Stage 6) and Practical Wisdom (Stage 7; Dreyfus, 2001, McPherson, 2005). The main emphasis at these stages is placed upon the development of “increased self-awareness,” “reflexivity,” and “responsibility” that are invariably combined with the emergence of the particular expert’s personal cultural style (McPherson, 2005, pp.711-712). Hence, the development of the student / practitioner from the novice to the expert, and then to the person characterized by a high degree of ‘practical wisdom,’ is conceptualized within the context of his/her ability “to distinguish those situations requiring one reaction from those demanding another” (H. L. Dreyfus & S. E. Dreyfus, 2005, p.787), which by its very premises involves the reliance on intuition.

The critics of Dreyfus’s model, e.g. English (1993) and Lyneham, Parkinson & Denholm (2009), share its preoccupation with the experiential and intuitive aspects of the expertise’s development, but generally disagree on the specific layout of its development, as outlined in Dreyfus’s five stages. For instance, in Eraut’s (1994) opinion, Dreyfus’s major shortcoming is his failure to present a coherent mechanism of the student’s progression through the five respective stages of learning. However, this assertion may be countered with Vanderburg’s (2004) account of the role of intuition in the qualitative change from Stages 1-3 to 4-5 in Dreyfus’s model (Vanderburg, 2004, pp.244-246).

In addition, Peña (2010) raises the problem of the correlation between intuition, on the one hand, and the expert’s previous experience, on the other. For instance, the example of the professional soldiers’ decisions with respect to the need for shooting shows that their intuition itself may be a function of experiential learning (Eriksen, 2010).  This situation may lead one to question H. L. Dreyfus & S. E. Dreyfus’s (2004) assertion that it is possible to situate purely ethical decisions within the framework of their intuition-based model.

It is notable that Dreyfus’ critics still recognize their ‘total dependence’ on his contributions for the development of their own conceptual frameworks (Kinchin & Cabot, 2010).  In particular, Dreyfus’s (2004b) assertion that the expertise’s development is ultimately conditioned by the activity of specific ‘critical neurons’ that perform the function of the respective skills and proficiencies’ maintenance and preservation appears to have been borne out by the observations included in Browne et al. (2009), with respect to the development of the motor skills, as well as the references to the relevant surveys of the nurses’ experiential learning by Benner (2001). However, one should mention that some other studies, in particular those referenced by English (1993), would appear to present a correcting argument to the model offered by Dreyfus. In particular, the concept of social learning is raised, as opposed to that of individual intuition (English, 1993, p.388).

Therefore, the Dreyfus intuition-based model of expertise and experiential learning at large would appear to be characterized by the number of potential limitations, which may be predicated on its failure to establish the exact mechanisms of the learners’ inter-stage transfer, as well as to address the social character of learning. Nonetheless, at the same time, its application may enable the practitioners and students to eschew the mechanistic association of expertise with the simple accumulation of quantitative knowledge. In this way, consistent application of the Dreyfus model would allow the researchers to pay proper attention to the qualitative aspects of expertise and experiential learning.

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