Theories on skill development & adaptation

Written by sally murphy
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Theories on skill development & adaptation
Understanding skill development theories helps humans learn and adapt. (blue brain image by John Sfondilias from

Learning a new skill can be a complex process, as anyone who has ever attempted to do so probably knows. There are many different theories that try to help us better understand the process of developing and adapting skills. Individuals may be interested in learning these theories to understand their own skill development, or in order to more effectively teach a skill to another individual or group.

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Piaget's Theories

Jean Piaget,studied the development of children's minds. According to the Learning and Teaching website, this includes learning to adapt information and skills. Piaget divides adaptation into two parts, "assimilation" and "accommodation." Assimilation occurs when an individual takes on new information or skills, but does not shift his mindset sufficiently. He tries to force the new skills to fit the mindset he already has. Accommodation involves expanding a pre-existing mindset in order to make sufficient room for new skills. This is a more complicated process, but also more effective for gaining new knowledge and skills. While Piaget looks specifically at children, this skill assimilation and accommodation is an ongoing process.

Piaget studied the way children assimilate or accommodate new skills.
Piaget studied the way children assimilate or accommodate new skills. (Young child learning to write her name image by levo from

Fitts and Posner

According to the website of Mike Collins, PhD, Fitts and Posner developed three "learning phases" that humans undergo as we develop new skills. The first phase is called the "cognitive phase." The cognitive phase occurs when individuals create a mental image of the skill they want to learn, divide the skill into smaller parts and identify each part. The second phase is the "associative phase," which involves practicing the different parts of the skill and then joining them together. This is also the phase where individuals may value feedback as they learn a skill. The final phase, the "autonomous" phase, occurs when the individual has repeated the skill often enough that she does not need to think about it too deeply. Reaching this autonomous phase requires significant and sustained practice of the new skill, but can be very rewarding.

Schmidt's Schema

According to the book "Human Motor Behavior" edited by J.A. Scott Kelso, Schmidt's schema examines the way humans learn new physical skills. Instead of thinking about the action as a whole, Schmidt believes we think of each action in stages. There are four parts of thinking about a new physical skill. First, the individual considers motor aspects, for instance, was the pace fast or slow? Was a jump high or not? Individuals then think about the consequences of the physical action. For instance, did the action succeed in meeting a goal, or fail? Third, individuals consider how the action felt (physically rather than emotionally). And finally, the individual goes back and thinks about the "initial conditions," or how the movement began. When learning a new physical skill, considering these four aspects together can help individuals build new goals and expand their abilities.

Individuals may consider many different aspects of a new skill.
Individuals may consider many different aspects of a new skill. (exercise)

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