What is an expert?

In Outliers Malcolm Gladwell  suggests that opportunity plays a significant part in someone becoming an expert. He suggests that a 10,000 hour rule applies as much to the success of The Beatles (opportunity to play live 7 days a week in Hamburg) as to that of Bill Gates (opportunity to attend an elite school with a computer club followed by access to the University of Washington IT facilities).  Whether or not 10,000 hours is a magic number it strikes me that access to the best facilities and time to practice are essential. All the better if learning is accelerated by having access to mentors, coaches and of course great teachers.

One of my favourite reference books at the moment is How People Learn Brain, Mind, Experience and School. It’s a great summary of the latest research on the science of learning and I would recommend it to anybody interested in education.

One chapter of this book sheds some light on ‘How Experts Differ from Novices’. The authors claim that research evidence shows that:
.. it is not simply general abilities such as memory or intelligence, nor the use of generalised strategies that differentiate experts from novices. Instead experts have acquired extensive knowledge that affects what they notice and how they organise, represent and interpret information in their environment. This in turn, affects their abilities to remember, reason and solve problems’.

The chapter goes on to illustrate the scientific findings drawn from areas such as chess, mathematics and history picking out 6 key principles:

  1. Experts notice patterns that novices miss.
  2. Experts have acquired and organised huge quantities of content that reflect a deep understanding of the subject.
  3. Expert knowledge cannot be reduced to sets of isolated facts or propositions. It always reflects contexts of applicability, i.e. it is ‘conditionalised’ on a set of circumstances.
  4. Experts are able to flexibly retrieve important aspects of their knowledge with little attentional effort.
  5. Though experts know their disciplines thoroughly, this does not mean they can teach it to others.
  6. Experts have varying levels of flexibility in how they deal with new situations.

The first four seem to me to make sense and confirm my own thinking. The 3rd principle is why even the cleverest civil servant can’t become an expert overnight, however much knowledge they cram when their brief changes.  The 5th principle should also be familiar as many of us will have had subject experts as teachers who just can’t teach. Could write a complete post on the 6th principle …

Two thoughts to end with. First of all, why does so much of what is served up as education today miss these principles completely – in particular why have we confused facts and propositional knowledge with deep learning, see principle number 3. [The answer lies in the assessment system me perhaps?]

Secondly, as someone who currently earns a living by providing ‘expert’ advice I am acutely aware that my expertise is always relative to context and to the expertise of other people. There is only one thing for it – I have just got to keep learning!

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