The readings this week had some very big themes. I chose to focus on the ones that I think will be driving forces going forward in my Masters program. The idea of novice vs. expert and metacognition are ones that many pages could be written about, but a few key areas were highlighted that seemed to resonate the most with me as I read this week.
First, experts think about and solve problems differently than a novice. They categorize information into big ideas. This helps to free the short term memory and create patterns. (Miller, 1956) Another key aspect of expertise is the automatic and fluent retrieval of relevant knowledge (Bransford, Brown, Cocking, 2000, p. 44). The text explains, “Fluent retrieval does not mean that experts always perform a task faster than novices. Because experts attempt to understand problems rather than to jump immediately to solution strategies, they sometimes take more time than novices” (e.g., Getzels and Csikszentmihalyi, 1976). The text went on to explain that while it may take them more time, experts move from a surface level solution to a well thought out and constructed one.
I especially appreciated the case study about the two history experts and a group of students studying to be high school history teachers who were asked to analyze the writings of Lincoln. One of the experts was a Lincoln historian so the task came easy to him, but the other historian was an expert in another field of history. At first he was as stumped as the would be teachers at reading and understanding the writings. However, soon his expert knowledge in other areas of history led him to step “back from his own initial interpretation and (he) searched for a deeper understanding of the issues. As he read texts from this perspective, his understanding deepened, and he learned from the experience” (Bransford, Brown, Cocking, 2000, p. 59) Not surprisingly, “the future history teachers, in contrast, never moved beyond their initial interpretations of events” (p. 59).
I see this concept in my teaching as I have moved from a novice to an expert. In the beginning of my teaching I would get lost in the details or daily tasks which needed to be accomplished. As I have moved through the years, starting with the very basic elements of a lesson plan and thinking how long it would take to write one plan when I was student teaching, let alone plan for a whole week to today where my team of accomplished third grade teachers can plan an entire week over lunch. We have those big ideas in mind. We know the end results we are looking for and can draw from many years of training and experience to accomplish that task. No longer do we dwell in the minutia of every minute of the lesson, but rather keep the key learning targets in mind as we navigate through each lesson. However, it is because of the years of training, writing detailed lesson plans, being mentored by other expert teachers, failing sometimes and learning from our mistakes, that has brought myself and my team to a place of being experts in our practice of teaching.
Yet, I truly identified myself in the reading as an “accomplished novice”. In How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, School: Expanded Edition (2000) it states –
The researchers and the teachers found it useful to replace their previous model of “answer-filled experts” with the model of “accomplished novices.” Accomplished novices are skilled in many areas and proud of their accomplishments, but they realize that what they know is minuscule compared to all that is potentially knowable. This model helps free people to continue to learn even though they may have spent 10 to 20 years as an “expert” in their field. (p. 48)
I have been in education either as a coach, professional development facilitator, or teacher for 20 years and I still feel like there is so much more to know than what I already do. Have my skills and knowledge increased and improved over this time, yes, but have I “arrived” in my profession to be a true “virtuoso” as the text suggests? Absolutely not.
This bring me to another big take away from the reading and that is the concept of metacognition. How People Learn defines metacognition as “the ability to monitor one’s current level of understanding and decide when it is not adequate”. (p. 47)Experts know when they don’t know something! Not only can they recognize that fact and be ok with it, they take logical steps to remedy the situation. As in the case of the history expert who was stumped on the Lincoln writings, he realized that he did not have the initial understanding of the writings, but “he adopted the working hypothesis that he needed to learn more about the context of Lincoln’s times before coming to a reasoned conclusion”. (p. 47)
Finally, Dr. William’s posed the question to us, “Why aren’t experts the best teachers for novices?”. I pondered this question all week and my initial hypothesis was proven correct in the readings. How People Learn says it well –
Expertise in an area does not guarantee that one can effectively teach others about that area. Expert teachers know the kinds of difficulties that students are likely to face, and they know how to tap into their students’ existing knowledge in order to make new information meaningful plus assess their students’ progress. In Shulman’s (1986, 1987) terms, expert teachers have acquired pedagogical content knowledge and not just content knowledge. (p. 49)
I made a note as I read thinking back to my math instructors from high school through post-college; math expert vs. expert math teacher, they are very different. I have had amazing mathematicians “teach” classes in graduate level math courses. They were experts in their field, published, renowned, but I, as well as many in my class, could not learn from them. We would meet and debrief after class for many hours and reteach ourselves the material. An expert teacher is one who can take the knowledge of the subject matter they have, break it down and make it relevant to their students so as to impart that knowledge to them. Hopefully in the process we are moving our students along their way from being a novice to an expert and sparking in them a love for learning that will increase their metacognition for their entire life.
Bransford, J.D., Brown, A.L., & Cocking, R.R. (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind,
experience, and school: Expanded Edition. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.