Dynamic Skill Theory: Its Origin, Development and Contemporary Extensions


Thomas Bidell, Independent Scholar, and Michael Mascolo, Merrimack College

Kurt Fischer’s dynamic skill theory has been one of the pioneering efforts to reformulate traditional static notions about developmental change in terms of an integrative, action-based dynamic perspective. Where others saw human psychological development in terms of uniform stages, isolated modular faculties and mechanistic computational routines, Fischer saw unified dynamic systems of living activity and offered a research-based theory to support it. In this symposium we review the origin and development of dynamic skill theory and present examples of its current applications and extensions.


Michael F. Mascolo. Dynamic Skill Theory: Trajectories in the Development of Integrative Action within in Socio-Cultural Contexts

Fischer’s dynamic skill theory started off, arguably, as a neo-Piagetian theory of cognitive development.  Fischer defined the concept of skill as a kind of contextualized control structure – the capacity to control action within particular contexts.  One of Fischer’s most important contributions – along with other neo-Piagetian scholars – was the formation of a developmental yardstick for making precise assessments of the structure of acting, thinking and feeling over time as they emerge in particular physical and social contexts.  Dynamic skill theory itself underwent a series of extensions and transformations over time as it engaged the evolving issues of developmental science. These included extending the model of the analysis of social-cognitive changes; the representation of self; brain-behavior relations and psychological change processes.  A second iteration occurred as the model embraced principles and methods related to dynamic systems theory. The model continued to be extended to analyzing the development of emotion; the analysis of culture in the organization of self and emotion; the development of affectively-charged relationships; and alternative trajectories in normative and non-normative development.  Most recently, dynamic skill theory has provided a framework for integrative work in mind, brain and education.  In this paper, I examine three major contributions of dynamic skill theory: (1) the integrative concept of skill or psychological structure; (2) the precise analysis of trajectories of skill development in different normative and non-normative domains and contexts; and (3) the coactive construction of skills in in relations between people.

Nira Granott. A Unified view of change in development.

This presentation focuses on uniting several theories about the process of change. In studies of two different unfamiliar problems, adults’ collaborative problem solving was analyzed using Fischer’s Dynamic skill theory. The same data sets are also analyzed using several other methods. Based on the results, a theoretical framework is proposed, interrelating Dynamic Skill Theory and several other theories and explanations of change (Siegler’s wave theory, Goldin-Meadow’s gesture-speech mismatch, Thelen & Smith’s dynamic reorganization during instability and the effect of context, and others). Implications for understanding change in development and learning are discussed.

Saskia Kunnen. Dynamic Skill Theory and Identity Development.

Starting from Fischer’s Skill Theory and Werner’s orthogenetic principle, I will describe identity development as a process in which commitments become more complex and at the same time more flexible over time as a result of a continuous process of differentiation and hierarchical integration. This process is triggered by emotionally relevant experiences, i.e. situations that trigger excitement and new insights, and, especially after the period of adolescence and emerging adulthood, by conflicts and situations that cannot be handled in a satisfying way by means of the existing commitments. I will argue that in the identity exploration phase differentiation of ideas, wishes, dreams and desires takes place, while the formation of new commitments can be seen as resulting from hierarchical integration.