More than competent

In an earlier blog I referred to Donald Schon’s critique of technical rationality.  This deserves further discussion.  Let me begin by mentioning two approaches to professional practice that are inspired by the technical-rational worldview.

Evidence based practice (EBP) has become deeply rooted in many fields of professional practice.  Practitioners can be criticised for doing their own thing, reinventing the wheel rather than relying on hard scientific evidence.  Instead of relying on their experience or the advice of a colleague, the EBP practitioner will make decisions about what to do by reference to the best available research related to the specific situation they face.  Accessing the relevant research, of course, is significantly enhanced through the use of computer based search engines.

Alongside this approach sits competence-based learning, focusing on the acquisition of skills performed to a set standard under specified conditions.  This can be taken to extremes.  The UK national occupational standards for youth work, for example, is a 183 page document listing 55 core competences (each broken down to between 25 and 35 bullet points listing required outcomes, behaviours, knowledge and understanding).  Although there is some repetition that computes to more than 1,750 measurements of performance!  I will overlook whether the criteria are measurable but just make the observation that a companion to this approach to professional development is staff appraisal, a tool that empowers management to ensure staff meet these agreed standards.

At a certain level all of this works.  But it rarely produces good work.

Of course there is a stage in the development of any practice when it is essential to learn the skills, to focus on the tools of the trade.  But paradoxically, once they have been learned we need to forget them.  It doesn’t take long for our bodies to learn how to balance on a bicycle, or a carpenter to learn how to work with a drill and a hammer.  As the basic skills recede into the background consciousness, a different quality of attention can develop.

Dreyfus and Dreyfus (2005) provide a useful way of thinking about professional development.  The novice or beginner relies on a set of procedures or clearly identified rules to govern their practice.  They follow instructions and learn from examples.  They practise their skills and, over time, can improve their competence.  With time, the practitioner builds up experience of many different situations and no longer simply applies fixed rules to each case.  They develop a perspective on their practice that helps them sort out what is important.  Because this involves some personal responsibility, nerves and emotions come into play.  There is joy in a job well done and frustration at the mistakes.  But each experience adds fodder to the resources from which a practitioner can draw in the decisions they make.  They become more proficient.

But we are still in the realm of technical rationality relying on analysis and conscious decision making.  The master of their craft will take a further step.  The master is no longer consciously sifting through prior experience or scientific research for guidance.  As Dreyfus & Drefus say, “… normally an expert does not calculate.  He or she does not solve problems.  He or she does not even think.  He or she just does what normally works and, of course, it normally works.”  They do good work time, after time, after time.

It is the shift from analytical to intuitive action that marks out the master craftsman.  They are fully immersed in each situation and the quality of their work is the result of what I would call the meta-skill of critical appreciation.  Critical appreciation involves a discerning eye, and skill at recognising patterns and making sense of situations, without imposing personal assumptions or pre-conceptions.  At this level of performance the practitioner can “let go”, working with the grain, shaping the situation for good.  The master of their craft is no longer a technician.  They have become artists of their practice.

Dreyfus, H. L. & Dreyfus, S. E. (2005).  Peripheral Vision : Expertise in Real World Contexts. Organization Studies, 26 (5), 779-792