Skills, Phenomenology, and Motorcycles: Why following rules, then forgetting them and taking risks makes you a better rider.


Riding is an acquired skill, no one just gets on a bike and automatically rides with skill. Often you hear statements like some people are naturally gifted, they learn a skill faster than most. Or, the more you practice the better you’ll get, as your skill level will improve through repetition. Often skill is connected with instruction, as you learn a new skill through lessons or tutoring.


But what do we really mean by gaining a new skill?


And how can a better understanding of skill acquisition improve our riding?


One particularly interesting way to look at skill acquisition is provided by the late American philosopher Hubert Dreyfus. Dreyfus’ academic background was in phenomenology and existentialism with particular expertise on artificial intelligence. Because Dreyfus is a phenomenologist his approach is different to, say, a traditional behavioural based analysis. However, his Merleau-Ponty based approach provides a powerful and persuasive narrative on adult skill acquisition with a few interesting implications for learning a complex skill like riding a motorcycle.

So, what can motorcyclists learn from Dreyfus’ adult skill acquisition approach?

If you want to read the Dreyfus paper used in this article download the pdf here. (A Phenomenology of Skill Acquisition as the basis for a Merleau-Pontian Non- representationalist Cognitive Science).


It’s also important to note that the Five Stage Learning Process set out by Dreyfus applies to adults acquiring a skill by instruction, not the everyday skills we acquire at, for example, an early age, like learning to walk or throw a ball. These are skills gained by trial and error or maybe by imitation within the context of coping with things in our environment and through everyday situations. Drawing on a philosophical approach developed by the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, as articulated in his important major work, Phenomenology of Perception, 1962, Dreyfus cleverly applies Merleau-Ponty's ideas to the problem of adult skill acquisition.

The following is a summary of Dreyfus’ five stages of adult skill acquisition by instruction.


In Dreyfus’ first stage of skill acquisition for adults, a formal learning process is undertaken. For complex skills, like learning a new language or how to program a computer, it seems appropriate that a structured process is undertaken. However, this does not preclude a process where the learner teaches themselves through following self-selected tutorials and other forms of self-learning instruction. The main concept to understand is the first stage of learning required as a beginner is usually a simplistic representation of the sought after skill, allowing the learner to build a foundation in the skill.

To understand this idea, take a typical approach to instruction. A learner typically starts gaining a new skill by learning the important context-free features of the skill, including the simple facts and rules that govern the skill and the ways the learner should follow the rules. The term context-free is important as it refers to facts or rules that don’t need a context to explain their application. For example, a context-free fact about a large rock may be its weight of 20kg. This can be objectively measured and is not dependent on its context. However, if you were to make a statement that the rock was too heavy to lift, then the fact ‘too heavy’ requires context. It is too heavy for a small child to lift, for example.

To explain the beginner stage, Dreyfus uses the example of learning to drive a car where the “student automobile driver learns to recognize such domain-independent features as speed (indicated by the speedometer) and is given rules such as shift to second when the speedometer needle points to ten.”

When learning a new skill, the instructor focuses on teaching the basics first, simplifying the tasks required to master a skill to a list of facts and rules, to ensure the learner understands the fundamentals of the skill.


Knowing a list of facts and following simple rules is a good way to start, but at this stage the beginner has limited abilities. Their decision making is poor because many facts, in the real world, are not independent of context. As the learner moves from stage one to stage two, they develop the ability to deal with situational facts and the application of maxims. Following Dreyfus’ learner driver example the “advanced beginner driver uses (situational) engine sounds as well as (non-situational) speed in deciding when to shift” (p.2) gears. Use the maxim ‘listen for the right engine noise and shift up a gear when the engine sounds loud’. When driving, engine sound is situational, depending on gear selection, road condition, type of vehicle, etc.

The advanced driver learns to match situational facts to actions therefore building their skill base.


As the learner gains experience, they learn to recognise, identify, and differentiate which facts are significant and adapt strategies based on the situation. This stage is what Dreyfus calls Competence, where the learner starts to become comfortable and achieves a level of skill to adequately undertake the task. He says:

“With more experience, the number of potentially relevant elements that the learner is able to recognize becomes overwhelming. To cope with this overload and to achieve competence, people learn, through instruction or experience, to devise a plan, or choose a perspective, that then determines which elements of the situation are important and which ones can be ignored.” (p.3)

Drawing on the experiences gained as a beginner, the competent learner will seek to avoid mistakes by applying rules and reasoning to their various plans in order to cope with different situations. However, this strategy is problematic as there is always a “vast number of situations differing from each other in subtle ways.” (p.4). The learner soon realises they need to make decisions for each situation without being sure if the decision they make is the correct one.

The competent learner how has an emotional investment in their skill. They have advanced beyond the beginner, the rule following learner. Any mistakes, for example, are now considered personal; you can’t blame the mistake on a rule as a beginner may do. This emotional involvement helps the learner, through positive or negative emotional experiences, reinforce good decisions and inhibit bad ones.

At this stage the learner starts to actively make skilful decisions and actions, combining experience with reasoned judgement to competently perform complex tasks. For the learner, they will start to feel their skill level improve as their decisions and actions start to become easier for them. Coping may at times still be difficult but the competent learner can relax a little more, there is no need to struggle and concentrate as much. The task starts to feel natural, not forced. However, applying the skill requires effort and the learner may become discouraged if they fail often because they are emotionally engaged in the task.


If the learner can make the jump from passive, detached rule following to active involvement in the skill acquisition process, over time they can become proficient at the task. “Only if experience is assimilated in this embodied, atheoretical way do intuitive reactions replace reasoned responses.” (p.5) Here Dreyfus concludes if you don’t embody the skill you will be stuck at a competent skill level. Embody the skill is something like ‘it feels natural’. You don’t need to try hard, the skill comes to you without thinking too much. I can just do it. Think of walking as an embodied skill.

“To understand this stage of skill acquisition we must remember that the involved, experienced performer sees goals and salient aspects, but not what to do to achieve these goals… The proficient performer simply has not yet had enough experience with the outcomes of the wide variety of possible responses to each of the situations.” (p.5)

Using Dreyfus’ learner driver example, the proficient driver can feel, that is, directly experience and perceive their speed as too fast to safely navigate, for example, a tight corner. They don’t base their decision on entry speed by following the rules posted on roadside speed signs, as a beginner might. On a wet, rainy day for the proficient driver it just feels safer to drive slower than normal around corners. Like the competent driver, a proficient driver needs to make a decision on the appropriate course of action. In this situation, a likely course of action is to apply the brakes to reduce speed before entering the corner. The key difference between the competent and proficient driver is the competent driver will spend additional time considering when and how to brake. To some degree, a competent learner still relies on reasoned, rule based judgement. Whereas, the proficient learner is directly engaged in the world through their skilful activity, and “sees what needs to be done, but must decide how to do it”. (p.5)


The difference between proficient and expert is a subtle yet important distinction. In short, for Dreyfus an expert just acts; no thinking, no reasoning or even deciding, no rule following or working through any decision making process at all.

The expert sees the right course of action and will have an “immediate intuitive situational response,” (p.6) is instinctively drawn to act appropriately in any given situation. They react without reviewing options, calculating alternatives or thinking through a course of action. They are in the moment, acting with skilful dexterity and the action they take is, in most situations, the right one.

“Acting is experienced as a steady flow of skillful activity in response to one's sense of the situation” (p.12) For Dreyfus, the expert, unlike the beginner, doesn’t use rules or maxims. “What must be done, simply is done.”(p.7)


A few thoughts on applying the Dreyfus adult skill acquisition approach to riding a motorcycle.

First, adult skill acquisition through instruction is an adaptive process, starting with a basic level of skill that can be developed through to a high functioning level. Most people understand that your level of skill builds with experience. And that good instruction is often vital to gain a valued and complex skill. Even the broad step process outlined above seems intuitively correct. In that it matches with our everyday experience. A new skill is often hard to learn, but over time and with practice it seems to becomes easier, and eventually the new skill becomes so natural that no deliberate thinking is required. This recognition is important because if you agree with Dreyfus’ five stages of adult skill acquisition by instruction, and he makes a forceful proposition, then there are some interesting lessons on how to develop an expert level of skill.

A Phenomenology of Skill Acquisition Flow Diagram



For adults developing a new skill, it seems important to have good instruction and teachers when learning the fundamentals of the skill, to help you understand what facts you need to know and what rules to follow. So, learning to ride at a motorcycle training school would be a good way to start your riding career.

Your skill level will naturally improve with experience, however, if you don’t expand your experiences once you have mastered the basic skills, and become emotionally invested in learning the new skill, you won’t become an expert and will be stuck at a advanced beginner or a competent level of riding (although you can be a happy, safe, and effective rider with a competent level of skill). Pushing beyond your current 'comfort level' and challenging yourself to try different situations is a necessary condition for advancing your skill level.

However, this does not mean be reckless or careless. For Dreyfus, when learning a new skill there is a stage where you need to get beyond a basic level of competence. This requires learning from your mistakes and if you have enough dedication, with a lack of satisfaction as to where you currently stand skill-wise, and you’re anxious about the need to improve, then trying new things to discover what works and what doesn’t will gradually, over time, make you get better and better, with a more refined sense of the situations you are in, ultimately giving you the skill to distinguish between many different situations and to act appropriately in each situation. In effect, you need to develop a sensitivity to a very wide range of situations and over time build an understanding of the important distinctions between each situation, thus developing the skill to a level where you respond appropriately to each situation without thinking.

Of course for motorcyclists gaining riding skills on public roads, this can be highly problematic. Mistakes can be fatal, you can seriously harm, or be harmed by, other road users. But following Dreyfus’ adult learning model, putting yourself in new and different situations is what allows you to become a better, safer rider. However, there’s certainly a lot more to be said about protecting yourself and others, and mitigating the potential harmful consequences that result from learning, as you seek to master the skill of riding a bike.



This may sound like a strange statement, but for Dreyfus skills are not stored in the mind as representations, like a set of instructions, or a list of facts or some sort of map we have access to and can easily pass on to others. Rather skills are stored “as more and more refined dispositions to respond to the solicitations of more and more refined perceptions of the current situation.” (p.1)

A skill is learned and modified through experience and is based on personal experiences as one acts in the world. The skill one develops is always, and can only ever be, unique to the individual. And it seems you have to also move through the different learning stages to progress and improve your skill level. No jumping stages is allowed. At some point the skill you gain will be highly specific to you, and completely embodied in your actions. Although this is a common sense conclusion, as everyone’s skills are to some degree individual, for Dreyfus, when a skill becomes embodied it allows for action that is at the expert end of the skill acquisition spectrum.

A simple reading of this point suggests you have to get the skill you want by doing it, by acting in the world, by practicing the skill. Not by reading about it or watching videos on it. By all means learn from experts, continually review your progress, take on board criticism, do training courses, study the ‘art of riding,’ watch what others are doing but what really counts is a focus on developing your riding skill through dedicated, emotionally engaged work. The secret is becoming emotionally engaged. To get good at the skill you have to really want it.


Unfortunately there’s no short cut.