An Agile Roadmap: Using the Fluency Paradigm to take A Fresh Look at Shu-Ha-Ri and the Dreyfus model


A Summary

I’ve done some reading lately on models of learning out there in implementing some of my favorite process tools, and I’d like to put a puzzle together connecting all the pieces. In the Agile software world, the common learning models I see go by the names “Dreyfus Learning Model” and “Shu-Ha-Ri”. In the “Where Are Your Keys?” world we have a similar, but different learning model. This apparently small difference has huge implications in practice, for both speed and depth of learning. I call this fundamentally different experience of skill acquisition Fluency.


Agile Teamwork refers to a culture of collaboration, mostly practiced in the software world (and mostly practiced there by those comfortable with innovation), that embraces the following priorities:

* Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
* Working software over comprehensive documentation
* Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
* Responding to change over following a plan

I recommend, for further understanding, reading the Twelve Principles of Agile Software. Though I have little experience in the IT world, I have used the Agile priorities and many major tools (Stand-Up Meetings, Iterations, Retrospectives) in the context of outdoor education, with quite satisfying results. It also tickles me that Christopher Alexander’s Pattern Language book inspired some of the founding work in Agile; I have gotten a lot out of his work, so it doesn’t surprise me that Agile attracts me so.

Now, “Where Are Your Keys?” refers to one application (that of learning a foreign language) of the general principles in the Learning Fluency Game, created by learning innovator Evan Gardner. Ever since meeting Evan and working with him over the past two years, I’ve had a paradigm shift around learning; I now understand why some of my teaching methods work so well, some don’t, and how to make them work even more deeply, powerfully, and nicest of all, more quickly. “WAYK?” has a unique structure, which can teach us a lot how to take Agile Teamwork adoption to the next level, along with any other skill we want to take to mastery. We have had such tremendous and revolutionary success with building fluency in other languages with “WAYK?” that I almost immediately began to think about other applications.

A Fresh Look

This brings me to learning models and roadmaps. When we first meet a new skill, we need a Roadmap. “WAYK?” uses the ACTFL (American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages) ‘levels of proficiency’ roadmap, a schema developed in the 1950’s by the US State Department for diplomats and others in foreign service.

Anytime a “WAYK?” instructor runs the game, they first present the roadmap. I usually frame the roadmap thus:

“I want to share our roadmap with you; I call it Travels With Charlie. As we gain fluency in [insert target language here], we will pass through four broad levels of proficiency.

The first, Novice, will sound a lot like an episode of Barney the Dinosaur: ‘We are singing, we are playing, we are laughing…”-type conversations, all in the present moment, about what occurs around us that we can observe. We see a lot of “what”/”who”/”where” questions.

The second, Intermediate, will sound a lot like an episode of Sesame Street: “Where are you going? -I’m going to the store. What are you going to buy? -I’m going to buy candy!”. We begin to see past and future tense involved, along with “when”/”how”/”why” questions added in.

The third level, Advanced, sounds a lot like an episode of Larry King Live: “When you look back on your life, what are your proudest moments?” “How did you feel when that happened? Why do you think that? Would you do it again?”. Lots of personal storytelling.

The fourth level, Superior, sounds a lot like an episode of Charlie Rose: “If you had advice for a new president, what would you give? How do you think presidents should behave? If we didn’t have a president, how would it change the world? Do we need them?”. We have moved beyond the personal, and into the world of society. We no longer tell our own stories, but the stories of society and how we think about economic, social, and political issues.

At any time, I will fish for your current fluency level, and then match our interaction to working on things just past that level. If you try to exceed your fluency level by using tools that lie farther away than ‘just past’, I’ll say ‘Sorry, Charlie!’, and we’ll drop back down to the level that your current fluency can absorb.”

Why do I love the “WAYK?” roadmap so much? Because it tells you exactly what to do, in any moment. It doesn’t abstract the learning process; it gives precise flags of where a language speaker stands and what help they need. Yet it allows for a lot flexibility and tailoring to the particular student/teacher. If I interact with an intermediate-level speaker of English, and ask them a few simple questions (“What’s that?” -“Oh, that’s my pen my mom gave me. I love it! I’m sorry, but you can’t borrow it, it has too much sentimental value; I got it while overseas and homesick.” “Wow! Really? Do you think pens work better than pencils? Would people improve their local economy by using pens?” -“I don’t know. I like pens.”), they will zoom to their level, I will test that indeed we’ve butted up against their fluency limit (a lack of fluency in economic/social/political discourse), and they will affirm it by their response.

Now, the “WAYK?” roadmap has a lot in common with Shu-Ha-Ri and the Dreyfus model. Let’s talk about Shu-Ha-Ri first. I like Alistair Cockburn’s articulation of Japanese traditional culture’s model of learning, which runs thus:

People who are learning and mastering new skills pass through three quite different stages of behavior: following, detaching, and fluent.

Lovely! This really echoes my experience.

When I combine this with my past experience creating fluency with “Where Are Your Keys?”, I realize I would refine the middle step: rather than ‘detaching’, I would call the Ha stage ‘contextualizing/connecting/interweaving’. ‘Context’ actually comes from the Old English root for woven material, “text” (as in “textile”); speakers of Old English loved poetry, riddles, and song, and saw all those activities as “word-weaving”, and so referred to the contents of books as “texts”, or “word-fabric”. Hence why I equate “context” with “interweaving”: connecting concepts to each other and through each other.

I would not call this stage “detaching” or “finding when the rule doesn’t work” or “breaking the rule”, because the ways in which things don’t work far outnumber (by many orders of magnitude, if not actually stretching into infinity) the ways in which they do work. I take a decidedly Appreciative Inquiry tack, as cued by the Fluency game methodology. We could talk all day about how not to do something. The more we focus on the relatively few ways in which you can interweave different concepts successfully, the more efficient our time together. I see this as a speed and efficiency issue. Some folks prefer to find the many exceptions to rules; I prefer to find the few successful application of rules. I will spend far less time practicing and mastering successful application than someone exploring the many unsuccessful applications of a tool. Hammers apply well to nails and a few other things; anything else they damage. How much damage do we need to do before we focus on mastering what a hammer does well (and very few people know how to use a hammer well, letting the weight of the tool do the work)?

I do notice something else about Shu-Ha-Ri; “WAYK?” employs this model at the small-chunk level. When we have Barney conversations, we acquire full fluency in Barney-level proficiency. Each step within Novice/Barney, we work to individual fluency in each particular tool. We pass to Ri (fluency) about a hundred times over in an hour of “WAYK?”, as we master each individual piece of language, first following, then interweaving and contextualizing, and then speaking fluently without hesitation, over and over and over.

Let’s accent those two points. I suggest we’d increase our speed of fluency by terming the Ha, in Shu-Ha-Ri, as contextualizing the successful use of the tool (rather than breaking or finding exceptions). I also propose that Shu-Ha-Ri doesn’t describe a big picture roadmap, like Travels With Charlie, as well as it does the small-chunk acquisition of fluency in specific skill tools.

But that last statement contains 90% of what you need to know about why “WAYK?” works so efficiently. It fractally contains all of its pedagogical philosophy; fluency of skill comes by progression through a nested hierarchy of skills, first more broadly applicable skills, to the finer- and finer-grained level. Think about making a sundae. You have to get the container, then scoop in the icecream, then the sauce, then the whipped cream, and only then the cherry on top (so much for my paleo diet…now I want a sundae!).

Let’s move on to the Dreyfus model. It actually has a lot in common with the Fluency roadmap. It has some of the same language (“Novice”, “Intermediate”, etc.); it may even actually derive from some of the academic understandings that inspired the ACTFL roadmap. I do see a divergence; it seems to also go the Shu-Ha-Ri route. It has more levels, more clearly defined, but it still takes a small-chunk understanding of gaining fluency in specific skills, and generalizes that to a roadmap-sized schema, unproductively, I think.

Though pointing out a useful progression at a small-chunk level, because of its small-chunk use the Dreyfus model actually makes gaining fluency in these sub-skills (aka patterns) look a bit more complicated than it actually works in practice (at least in the context of “WAYK?”). I like Shu-Ha-Ri because it reflects the potential speed of small-chunk fluency with three short, one-syllable steps. Additionally, I don’t think students or teachers need this understanding, necessarily, to efficiently move through these little fluencies. I think, whether they know it or not, they want a big-picture road map, with road signs of physical events and empirical behaviors to mark their progress. The Dreyfus model mostly refers to reflective or internal events within the learner, and to a more abstract picture of their general behavior. But what real, observable, empirical behaviors indicate progress through a roadmap? I’ve given you the road signs for “WAYK?”; actual words used at different levels of fluency, specific grammatical skills, and specific cognitive skills.

So let’s make the leap. As a thought experiment, I will apply the Fluency Game principles to a hypothetical Agile Teamwork adoption and see what happens. I haven’t tried this before today; this marks iteration one! But I think we’ll still see some surprisingly good initial results.

Stay tuned for Part II, An Agile Roadmap: The First Iteration

Written by Willem