The Experiences, Support, Reflection Cycle

Clark Quinn penned a post last year titled Reimagining Learning. Inspired by Clark’s concept, I built this diagram to illustrate the structures of how I understood the concept and relationships between elements.


This relationship and cycle agree with the investigative work of Ericksson, Prietula, and Cokely (summarized for the masses by Malcolm Gladwell as “10,000 hours makes an expert”.) Ericksson, Prietula, and Cokely connected studies by notable folks such as Benjamin Bloom to posit & highlight three components most common to building high levels of expertise:

  1. Deliberate practice. Progressive application of skills and experience performing tasks in authentic work contexts are key to mastery and development of expertise. Even though this seems like a no brainer, how often do we see a focus on content over practice in analogue and digital contexts?
  2. Expert coaching. Feedback and guidance make critical connections with deliberate practice. How often do we turn folks loose to learn on their own? How often do we provide generalized feedback vice adaptive expert feedback? Stumble through the mountains or journey with a sherpa. Which yields more consistently positive results?
  3. Enthusiastic support. Encouragement is so critical to every endeavor we pursue. Have you ever continued down a path that you otherwise would have abandoned simply because a family member, friend, or supervisor was your personal cheerleader? Yeah, that.

The experiences, support, and reflection cycle illustrated above is one way to weave in the components we know to be most helpful in developing expert performance.

I love the concepts Clark expresses in his reimagined engagement cycle / formation. This concept carries bits of cognitive apprenticeship, emphasizing key practices of reflection and sustained focus on relevant, authentic activities (making stuff, experimenting, and ample deliberate practice.)

Is this a perfect formula for developing expertise? Probably not (perfect formulas aren’t perfect). But it’s a great starting place if you’re in it for the long haul.

If we care about developing proficiency (in ourselves or helping to encourage and facilitate proficiency in others) we had better be in it for the long haul. Fast-food style training services may get our folks “fed up”. We can’t build champions on a fast-food menu.

Showing Our Work: Design Economics

Showing Our Work
Photo by Irving Rusinow [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons
You start a new project and receive a heap of content from stakeholders. Your shiny new stack of content arrives with an expectation from the project owner that you deliver that content (every ounce of it) to the mental doormats of their audience. In an attempt to do the right thing, you dutifully conduct an analysis of the performance & skills that the program you’re helping needs to address. You get to know the audience. You frame a set of performance objectives around a reasonably rigorous analysis.  Despite this effort, you’re still stuck with big pile of content.

The tail wags the dog. You dive into the rabbit hole head first. You search for aesthetically pleasing layouts and graphics that will grab attention. You look for ways to make an awful experience less awful. Soon you’ve invested a ton of time trying to engineer treatments for content and you’ve lost sight of the purpose of the solution (if ever there was a purpose).

Sound familiar? You bet. When you enter into a battle with content treatments, it’s easy to get lost in the noise. That noise makes it easy to lose sight of the things we can do to really make the biggest difference. Unfortunately, this unenviable situation is far too common. It seems unfair to give information this much of our attention, doesn’t it?


In the performance solutions field (ISD, learning experiences, whatever you want to call what we do), we often look at other fields of discipline for guidance and inspiration. We often examine other design disciplines or areas of media production, looking for better ways to position and polish our communication. As helpful as these fields might be, we may be overlooking an important, albeit less sexy, discipline. The field of economics may hold one key to making solutions worth the effort we put into them.

Economics is a process that converts inputs that have economic value into outputs that also have economic value.

In design, we deal with many factors and artifacts (currencies). Ideally we’ll weigh all of the inputs we can to make decisions that provide the best trade-offs and consequently the best outputs and value for all stakeholders, given the inputs we have to work with. Content is just one of these currencies. Other currencies include:

  • Target accomplishments
  • Tasks that enable the accomplishments
  • Skills that enable the tasks
  • Components of the skills that enable the tasks
  • Audience factors
  • Environment factors
  • Technology supports / constraints
  • The client’s wants
  • The client’s needs

An experience itself is defined by economics. Good experiences consist of moments that drive towards the design intent or the goal of the solution. That’s a deep one, I’d rather go down that route in another post.

Good economics supply greater value in the outputs than the inputs, making the outcome worth the effort. While it’s not as sexy as User Experience (UX) or game design, doesn’t economics sound like a field worth looking into?

Make the outcome worth the effort.

Often, maybe too often, we make decisions that seem to draw magic lines between content and solution without consideration of the intent of the aggregate of those decisions. Starting with purpose in mind is a sensible guideline. It’s easy and intuitive to point to this and say “Yeah, that’s the right way to do it” but it’s challenging to follow in practice. I guess that’s why we call it a discipline.

Here are two suggestions you can use to battle the magic leap and increase your effort to outcome ratio.

  1. Look at your solutions as economic problems. Map the structure of your problem so you can know exactly how the structure of your answers matter in the big picture. Understand the structure of the task down to the skills and all of the factors that shape the execution of the skill. Know what concepts drive the skill. Know common interpretations of a rule that influences the execution of the skill. Use this structure to validate your decisions. If something doesn’t stick, dump it.
  2. Don’t start with content. Don’t get hung up on content. While content is often an important artifact, it’s the wrong starting point. And in many cases it hadn’t earned the effort we often invest in it. Getting lost in the (often horrible) noise of treating content is a great way to lose sight of the big picture and is a terrible way to deliver value. It’s hard to win the performance war if we tie all of our energy up in a content battle. Content is a means to an end. Starting with a focus on content will make it a slog for you and a slog for your participants. Pick another starting point.

Everything we do and every choice we make has a cost. Every cost stacks debt. That debt can manifest as time, money, disappointment, or simply things you need to fix to make it work (costing time, money, and disappointment). This debt adds up. Design is an economic problem. How do you account for your design debt?

In follow-up posts, I’ll talk a little about a process I’ve been exploring to expose a deeper look at the currencies we use in design and a way to change the tendencies we have that give so much weight to content.

How are you showing your work?

Defining Competence, Proficiency, Expertise, and Mastery

Think about how you’d answer these questions:

  • How do we as performers make the journey from not able to ready to perform and beyond?
  • How can Human Performance Technology (HPT) practices help remove friction and improve the environments where this journey happens?
  • If we don’t all have the same idea for what the pathway looks like, how can we work together to efficiently help the performer ascend to the levels they need to reach and heights that they aspire to?

While I’m not sure it’s always necessary, I think it’s important to create some sense of consistent gravity around critical anchors in the language of our discipline. Skill, proficiency, and expertise are among the concepts I would consider to be critical in a field that exists to support, facilitate, and improve the things that these terms represent. In this case the mechanisms by which we help folks climb the ladder, navigate pathways, and make connections seems to be more more important than the meaning of the terms (levels) themselves.

The post is still going to be about the lexicon for competence, proficiency, expertise, and mastery but it’s going to cover a bit of ground in the process.

U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Robert J. Papp

I had been planning to read an article written by ADM Robert J. Papp , Jr. titled Proficiency: The Essence of Discipline for a few weeks. I’ve known ADM Papp for a few years and he’s one of the many people I admire. His views on experience and proficiency have informed my own. As an organizational leader (he’s the four star Admiral in charge of the USCG and a genuinely cool dude), the Admiral walks the talk and the steps he’s outlined are indeed in motion. The article did not disappoint.  I recommend giving it a read.

This excerpt from ADM Papp’s article encapsulates the problem nicely.

I began speaking of proficiency in my first “State of the Coast Guard” address in early 2011, and it generated a flood of questions. During all-hands meetings last year, I frequently was asked to describe “proficiency.” I would reply by recounting how during a visit to a Coast Guard boat station I had asked the crew, “Who is the best boat coxswain?” Of course half a dozen boatswain’s mates immediately raised their hands. So I rephrased the question. “If the search-and-rescue alarm sounded and you had to go out in a severe storm, who would you want to be the coxswain of the motor lifeboat?” Everyone turned and pointed to the commander, a chief warrant officer boatswain (BOSN4) and surfman with more than 30 years of experience. Clearly, we all know proficiency when we see it. But how do we become proficient? And proficient at what?

~ ADM Robert J. Papp, Commandant USCG

Do we have a common language for the steps in skill acquisition?

As I read ADM Papp’s article, it struck me that while we often talk about proficiency, skill, and expertise in my field, we might not have a common idea for what these terms represent. If we don’t have a common concept for the meaning, it could be difficult for us to agree on the mechanisms we use to facilitate (or know when to get out of the way and trust in the strength of the network or the individual). When do we mediate and intervene? When do we let go? Tough questions if we don’t agree on the model for what skill progression looks like.

I talked about my views on the place “skills” live in the great network of being in Make the Structure Visible. For the purposes of this discussion, let’s assume that the outcome is the goal and the skill is one of the means to reach the goal. Let’s also assume that most, if not all, skills can be categorized with multiple different levels of mastery.

To start, let’s riff off of an inspiring post by Craig Wiggins with some martial arts flavor. These are probably some of the oldest mastery development models in existence. Ancient disciplines seem like a good place to start. The definition of levels is one facet, but looking at the model, the real value of the definition is in the mechanisms that bridge from one level to the next.

Shuhari (foundations, breaking away, transcendence)

Shuhari comes from a Japanese martial art concept that illustrates progression for attaining mastery through disciplined learning.

 shu (守) translates as protect or obey. In the context of Japanese martial arts, this is where learning progression begins. These foundations represent learning fundamental techniques, heuristics, and proverbs. During this stage, the subject of the discipline does not deviate from the forms presented by a single instructor.

 ha (破) translates as detach or digress. This is where learning progression expands beyond the foundations and the subject is encouraged to innovate and break free of the rigid foundations. During this stage, the subject explores the application of the foundational forms, making some forms their own and discarding others.

 ri (離) translates as leave or separate. In this stage, the subject completely departs from the discipline of the forms and opens themselves to creative techniques that align with the desires of the heart and mind within the bounds of laws, rules, and values. The subject is encouraged to use what they have acquired during shu and ha to transcend teachings and acquire mastery, making their own connections and relationships to the discipline.

Chinese martial arts such as Wushu also offer a three-phase mastery concept.

  • Earth – Basics.
  • Human – Ready to learn (equated to 1st level black belt, so I suppose you’re not really ready to learn in this context until you’ve reached performance competence.)
  • Sky – No conscious thought.

It looks like the concepts of defining states or levels along the path to mastery have been around for a while. These relatively simple models represent a disciplined progression and transformation from novice to apprentice through to journeyman and master.

The Flowers Model of Capacity

I’ve long held my own categorization for levels of performer across three dimensions: Selection, interpretation, and execution.  Following novice through master, each level is matched with a more colloquial label.

Novice is matched with the label Burden since it can be a challenge to find the right resources to grow a novice.  This isn’t meant to be an insult to the novice. Everyone has to start somewhere. This merely implies that the development of the novice can be a larger draw on an organization’s resources than the development of the higher levels. That doesn’t prevent a senior performer from regressing or not growing beyond the novice level. We don’t always do the Novice relationship (opportunity) justice. The burden level is about exchange of value. When considering a person that’s new to an organization, training and patience are an investment in future returns.

It’s purely coincidental, but this is really similar to the Shuhari model of progression through mastery. The chart describing this model represents three main activity areas: selection, interpretation, and execution. I still like this model for some types of work but I don’t think it’s good enough to map into a common lexicon.

Dreyfus’ Model of Skill Acquisition

This model of skill acquisition comes from Hubert Dreyfus, a philosopher and educator. The original model proposed that people pass through five stages in pursuit of skills: novice, advanced beginner, competent, proficient, and expert. This was later revised to encompass seven distinct stages.

Novice A novice is just learning the basics of a subject, unable to exercise discretionary judgment and has rigid adherence to taught rules or plans.

Advanced Beginner The advanced beginner is beginning to connect relevant contexts to the rules and facts they are learning. Folks at this level may have no sense of practical priority. All aspects of work may be treated separately and will likely have equal importance.

Competent A competent performer is able to select rules or perspectives appropriate to the situation, taking responsibility for approach.

Proficient A proficient performer has experience making situational discriminations that enables recognition of problems and best approaches for solving the problems. At this stage, intuitive reactions replace reasoned responses.

Expert  The expert performer is able to see what needs to be achieved and how to achieve it. This level of performer is able to make more refined and subtle discriminations than a proficient performer, tailoring approach and method to each situation based on this level of skill.

Master The mastery performer has developed their own style, extending expertise within a domain with their own synthesis of tools and methods.

Practical Wisdom This level was tacked on later at the behest of a colleague. This describes the assimilation of the master’s creations within the culture of a work unit or organization. In my interpretation, this is the closure of the cycle and describes the giving back from the master to the domain, enhancing the domain body of knowledge itself.

Let’s focus for a moment on the four levels in the middle: competence, proficiency, expertise, and mastery. These represent the progression from confidently able (decreased burden on the system – returns are beginning to emerge), intuitively able (solver), to crazy able (synthesizer), and beyond.

While I like this model, it doesn’t seem to offer a solid definition of the behavioral components of proficient, expert, or master. If it matters that these levels are attained, what signifies each milestone for a particular skill? How are these levels distinct?

James Atherton offers an extension that might be useful in narrowing the definition expertise and may be helpful in quantifying the meaning of and mechanisms for attaining proficiency, expertise, and mastery. He adds that an expert might be defined by the demonstration of:

  • Competence: The ability to perform a requisite range of skills.
  • Contextualization: Knowing when to do what.
  • Contingency: The flexibility to cope, adapt, and respond when things go wrong.
  • Creativity: The capacity to solve novel problems.

I’m not sure these round it out for me completely, but these do clarify the borders of meaning between these terms. To be useful, the definitions should ultimately define a clear distinction among proficiency, expertise, and mastery that sets these levels apart from the threshold of competency.

One question that seems to surface often, one that I’ve brought up as well, is the importance of skill mastery beyond performance competence. How important is mastery beyond performance competence? I think the answer is “it depends” but it seems like there’s a consistent human drive that requires a goal beyond status quo for satisfaction in life (including life at work). If we don’t define what those goals could look like and don’t set our expectations higher, we risk performance competence becoming the high water mark in organizational performance expectations. Shouldn’t performance competence be the minimum standard?

Wrapping this up

I think holding a common understanding of what each of these levels mean could help to better communicate relationships. The value of this common thread transcends the relationships between the levels. A common understanding could help us better map the what, when, and why of how we help folks navigate the journey from no skill to skill mastery or any stop in between.

Let’s continue the conversation. Does Dreyfus’ model resonate with you? What have you found? Does this matter as much as I think it does?

Narrowing the Solution Field – Part 2

In the first part of this series, I introduced an approach for making selection of interventions a little less arbitrary. In this installation, I’ll refine process funnel a bit to round out and clarify definitions of the output levels.

When using processes like this, I think it’s important to keep in mind:

  1. There is no magical process or algorithm to make design decisions automatically. Because of all the factors at play, this stuff is work. Doing it right takes rigor and  discipline. Anything short of a disciplined approach is rolling the dice.
  2. Design is a complex business of weighed options and trade-offs. The answers are almost never easy and there is rarely only one answer.
  3. This process of refinement isn’t linear. It IS iterative and involves making and validating assumptions.
  4. Design is a process of illumination. You can’t solve a problem that you can’t see.

That said, models and tools for thinking through problems can be really helpful to shake things loose and help you to show your work.

Continue reading Narrowing the Solution Field – Part 2

Just a Nudge – Getting into Skill Range

I may have mentioned somewhere that I was active duty USCG for a decade or so, a decade or so ago. If I hadn’t, I have now.

Active duty members of the U.S. Coast Guard get the opportunity to take on jobs like boarding team member (BTM) or boarding officer (BO). While qualifying as a BTM or BO, you become intimately familiar with law enforcement concepts like the use of force, authority and jurisdiction. One of the common tenets of use of force is only apply the minimum force necessary to compel compliance. That means you don’t use a take-down or baton when a professional tone will get the job done. Even when not considering compliance as the goal, this concept be useful when designing instruction performance solutions and experiences that support learning.

This is the visualization of an idea that’s been in my head for awhile. It stands as a rationalization against the pursuit of instructional perfection. This rationalization assumes that learning is a function of the learner and instructional perfection is a futile goal. In my view, attempting to design for perfect skill mastery can actually defeat or smother the natural learning process. I’m pretty sure this concept isn’t an original idea.

Think about a concentric circle with two separate borders. The first border at the center of the circle is skill mastery. This is the zone representing the skill level of people that have have been practicing for a significant period of time and have ascended through the ranks of apprentice and journeyman. The master of a craft has typically poured more into their own development than the average performer. The master has pursued mastery and has probably reached this level of mastery with the careful and loving assistance of a master of the craft. The second border on the outside is the skill range. This defines the minimum level a performer would need to reach in order to “figure it out” and succeed in a task or set of tasks that require the same skill.

This concept assumes that skill mastery is rarely required for accomplishment but does NOT exclude skill mastery as a target when pursued by the performer. Imagine a booming emphasis on “pursued by the performer” voiced by James Earl Jones. I don’t believe skill mastery is driven from the outside. People only reach mastery when they really want to. Never by accident.

The idea here is to design solutions to provide just the right nudge at just the right moment to place folks within range of successful accomplishment. Given the right environment, people can be remarkably adept at figuring things out. If we rob learners of the opportunity to “figure it out”, we risk missing the mark entirely and increase the probability that learning won’t stick or the type of learning that takes place won’t connect in the way we, or more importantly the learner, needs it to. To me, instruction performance solutions and experiences that support learning should be designed as a nudge to help the performer learn just enough to get within range of the next thing or success in the task at hand. Nudge, get out of the way and be ready to give another nudge in a right moment.

Job aids and performance support can serve as perfect nudges — getting out of the way when needed and appearing at just the right moment at the request of the performer. Maybe we can spend more time building for just the right nudge in the right moment and less time building over-engineered content packages?

Instructional perfection is a unicorn. A mythical creature. The effort expended to reach it is not only wasteful but probably defeats your design purpose. Design for nudges and watch deliberately from a distance. Time spent connecting your learners with just what they need, even when that need is another journeyman or master to help guide them, is time well spent. Your learners will excel until they need another nudge and since they used their own natural learning process to move through the skill range, it’ll be far more indelible (they’ll remember the experience).

This doesn’t mean a designer is completely hands-off — it merely means you need to treat your audience as capable learning machines. Because… they are.

In the business of L&D, we tend to beat folks into submission with information. We should really ask ourselves, what’s the minimum force I need apply to compel the desired outcome. We need to be prepared to stop there and stay out of the way. We aren’t the source of learning magic. They are.