From Novice to Expert: The Body’s Role in the Acquisition of Knowledge

Hubert Dreyfus, following Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, considers the body an indispensable component of knowledge acquisition. For Dreyfus, and those who place a similar emphasis on embodiment, human beings are not merely minds who process information. We are embodied minds who learn and experience reality by processing more than just discreet bits of data which can be formalized and verbalized. Much of what we know, in their view, cannot, in fact, be verbalized or formalized. Instead, this sort of knowledge is carried in the body in the form of habit or pre-rational understanding that yields intuitive comprehension and action. In light of this view of knowledge, Dreyfus is skeptical of online learning because of the manner in which it appears to abstract the body from the experience of learning.

Dreyfus expressed his concerns with online eduction in his 2001 book, On the Internet. He begins by noting the enthusiasm with which some educators were then touting the potential of the Internet to transform education. He cites, for example, Reed Hundt, one time dean at Yale University who believed that “the new Internet system of education” had the potential to “bring down” the older, traditional model of education.

Hundt, to be clear, was cheery about this possibility. Dreyfus notes that some educators were much less sanguine about the potential of the Internet, but in his estimation neither side offered anything by way of an argument for their position. To fill this gap, Dreyfus articulates a theory of skill and knowledge acquisition in which the body plays a central role. By implication, if Dreyfus’ theory holds, then online education would appear to be an inadequate environment for education.

In Dreyfus’ view, a learner proceeds through the following stages of skills acquisition: novice, advanced beginner, competence, proficiency, expertise, and practical wisdom. As he considers each of these stages, Dreyfus provides three variations of skill acquisition: a motor skill, an intellectual skill, and “what takes place in the lecture hall.”

The running example in the first two variations are, respectively, learning to drive and learning to play chess. It is in these first two variations that the strength of his exposition is most evident, but I’ll use the third variation to briefly describe Dreyfus’ model. Here then are the stages of knowledge acquisition briefly explained.

Novice: At this stage context independent information about the domain is communicated along with basic rules that the learner can recognize without yet possessing the skill in question.

Advanced beginner: Context comes into play at this stage as learners, through experience with the material, are led to recognize context dependent meaning of the information and rules that they learned as novices.

Competence: As students learn more about the material they may be overwhelmed by the amount of relevant information and aspects of a situation that they are now able to discern. Achieving competence depends on developing the ability to make decisions about what is most important or relevant to a particular situation or problem. At this point, since the volume of potentially relevant information is so large, a learner must begin to intuitively discern rather than consciously process all of the possibilities. Additionally, at this stage Dreyfus also notes that a certain emotional response, either the despair of failure or the exhilaration of success, will significantly influence whether or not the learner continues on to the later stages.

Proficiency: The proficient learner, reinforced by positive emotional experiences, will internalize knowledge gained from extensive experience with problems in the domain of learning and will intuitively recognize the salient features of any new problem and see, without consciously processing a wide array of rules and maxims, what needs to be solved.

Expertise: In Dreyfus’ own words, “The expert not only sees what needs to be achieved; thanks to his vast repertoire of situational discriminations, he also sees immediately how to achieve his goal.”

Practical wisdom: Finally, the learner will have not only mastered a skill so as to intuitively solve problems, they will also learn “the general ability to do the appropriate thing, at the appropriate time, in the appropriate way.”This essentially entails a culturally aware and sensitive manner of being an expert.

Dreyfus does not argue that online learning is without value. Online learning may get us as far as the first two stages; but not, in his view, much farther than that. Beyond the first couple of stages of knowledge/skill acquisition, embodiment is indispensable:

“Distance learning enthusiasts … need to realize that only emotional, involved, embodied human beings can become proficient and expert and only they can become masters. So, while they are teaching specific skills teachers must also be incarnating and encouraging involvement. Moreover, learning through apprenticeship requires the presence of experts, and picking up the style of life that we share with others in our culture requires begin in the presence of our elders.”

It is always worth asking what view of knowledge or what philosophy of education is assumed when we engage in discussions and debates about pedagogy, on- or offline. It seems to me that the most optimistic visions for online learning attain a certain plausibility only on the assumption of a rather narrow view of what knowledge or an education entails. Sometimes this is the best that can be hoped for and we should not besmirch online learning’s ability to bring some education to those whose only other option would be no education at all; again context and situation matter. But strictly online education hardly represents an ideal — unless we already assume that knowledge and learning amount to the mere aggregation of discreet bits of data.