Novice to Expert, in the Dreyfus Model

I recently attended a presentation about "The Dreyfus Model". This is a model of skill acquisition, and it describes how people progress in their knowledge. It is very general, and it applies to a lot of professions - even if the particular presentation I followed was in the context of software engineering, which is my job.

The Dreyfus model states that all learning follows the following stages:

  1. Beginner
  2. Advanced Beginner
  3. Competent
  4. Proficient
  5. Expert

This is just one one of the several definition of the 5 stages, and not everything may make sense, depending at what particular domain you have in mind, but the main idea is that while the beginner is thinking in terms of rigid rules, at the other end of the spectrum the expert relies mainly on intuition and contextual knowledge.

As a consequence, even when asked a very general question, the beginner finds an applicable rule and then he's "sure" about the answer, he thinks he nailed it down. On the other hand, an expert will most likely answer a very general question with "It depends"; only when given a concrete situation, a context, will the expert give a firm answer.

It occurred to me that this is very much true in Go as well. Beginners think in proverbs, they are always happy to quote somebody else: "I heard in a XYZ situation you have to do this-and-that." They are so happy when they can play joseki.

On the other hand, if you ask a professional something, it is many times frustrating to see that they cannot explain things to our level: "This is good in this situation, that is bad". Why is this good? Why is that bad? Or something else: there is some simple fuseki on the board, and you ask a pro how to play next, and instead of answering you instantaneously, they think about it, and look at the whole board - common, haven't you seen this a thousand times already? Isn't there a rule about this fuseki that you should already know, as a pro? Oh, and don't even get me started about joseki - why can't professionals play joseki, like the rest of us?

Turns out that we shouldn't be frustrated, the Dreyfus model explains it plain and clear: experts don't follow rules, because they don't think in rules, they have so much experience and the context is so important for them, that every situation is special, and it deserves to be analyzed. Professionals can't always explain to us why a particular move is good in a particular situation not because they are mean, but because there may be so many particular details and aspects in that situation that are not handled analytically by the professional, but intuitively, based on many years of experience. Nobody can really explain intuition.

Novice: Hey dude, so what's better here, A or B?

Expert: Hm,..., er,... C.

Novice: What? Why???

Expert: Trust me.

Novice: Year, right...

If you are not convinced, and you are yourself a professional is some domain (computers, maths, engineering, medicine, whatever) - think about your own domain of expertise: you must have had to deal with a novice, an intern, a very young fellow that just graduated; what kind of questions did he ask you, and what kind of answers did you give him?

I am not a professional in Go, but I am one in programming, and I can surely tell this is true there.

With these things in mind, we should have even more appreciation for those professionals that manage to explain things at our level, and teach us things in a useful way for us - because that requires a lot of effort and teaching skills for an expert!