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.

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?