Learning skills: “the constant interplay of agency and action”

Andy Gibbons Skilled performance is a very important manifestation of human knowledge. It is a kind of knowledge that improves with use. We begin learning as a novice and gain new capability every time we exercise a skill. What can we learn about skill by recalling how we learned the skills that we use every day? Let me suggest several things:

First, skill is learned through multiple attempts, over a period of time….

Second, skill learning requires much practice. Not just any kind of practice will do: it must be practice in which the learner can find out how well they did after each attempt….

Third, you can’t learn a new skill just from being told, unless you already possess other very similar skills….

Fourth, the learning of a new skill requires the integration of skills you already possess….

Fifth, skilled performance consists of more than robotically repeated procedural actions. This is where the topic of skill begins to become more interesting.

A skill is performed slightly differently each time we perform it. This is because the circumstances surrounding the performance change. Skill is the type of human behavior that allows us to adapt our actions to changing circumstances. The next pitch in a baseball game usually depends on the previous pitch, among other things. The pitcher who throws the same pitch every time doesn’t win games, as demonstrated in this last World Series.

Sixth, it is important to notice that the exercise of a skill is often the very thing that changes the circumstances.

Skill requires the exercise of judgment, decision making, agency, and problem solving. When we exercise our agency to act righteously, it changes the world around us, setting up new conditions that we then continue to respond to….

…no matter how automatic the performance of skill subroutines becomes, skilled performance always follows the same pattern: it is a pattern of action followed by decision making….

Skill is more than just thinking about something: it involves doing, then judging how we did, and then deciding what to do next. It involves knowing when to start, when to stop, what to do, how much to do, and what not to do. It involves judging how well we are doing and how effective our actions are in practice. Skill is the constant interplay of agency and action….

Andrew Gibbons, “The Skills of a  Saint,” BYU Devotional, 25 January 2011.

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