Experts and Novices, II

Everywhere I turn these days, I keep seeing evidence of the pervasive confusion about experts and novices that we’ve been talking about for the past week or so. On the Latinteach listserv, a Latin teacher colleague wants to know how she can move her students from “marking everything” about a passage to marking “only what they need to mark to understand the passage.” In a comment on this Google+ thread, Dr. Pam Moran suggests that struggling learners “don’t know what to do when they don’t know what to do.” And I got into a lengthy Twitter conversation yesterday about standards and standardization, which led to the discovery of this blog post on the subject.  I’ll have more to say about the Twitter conversation and the standards / standardization issue later.

How are these three examples related to experts and novices, and specifically to a confusion about the work of experts and the work of novices? Please bear with me for a moment.

My Latin-teacher colleague assumes that novice language learners must “mark everything” – in other words, that they must be hyper-aware and hyper-analytic as they work. But I’d argue that novices simply can’t do that. To borrow the terminology of the conscious competence model, novices are at a stage of unconscious incompetence: not only do they not “know what to do,” as Pam said, but they don’t even realize this. With her emphasis on hyper-analysis, my colleague is asking for something like conscious competence from her novice learners. But the only way to get there from here is the lengthy road from unconscious incompetence through conscious incompetence … and conscious competence itself is only a stop on the journey to unconscious competence or fluent performance. By insisting on too much accuracy, too soon in the process, is my colleague actually making it harder for her novice learners to become experts?

Later in Pam’s Google+ comment, she mentions that

Now, we are awakening to the notion that children need to experience the processes of creating, designing, inventing, building, engineering, and producing to make thinking both visionary and visible. This likely produces anxiety among many who have been conditioned to believe they must rely upon curricula in a box, a book, or on a screen in order to teach. The world of non-standard problems and non-standard solutions that our children face demands that we teach so that they can learn what to do when they don’t know what to do.

Unfortunately, 20th-century schools are designed for a world of standard problems and standard solutions, and as Ira Socol points out in this blog post, most teachers chose their profession because they enjoyed and excelled in that standard(ized) world. It’s only natural for such teachers to rely on the kinds of standardized solutions that Pam mentions above, and it’s also natural for them to think of an expert as a person who can quickly produce standard answers to the standard questions.

Even as I’m writing this post, I notice that I’ve used the adjectives standard and standardized almost interchangeably. I guess that’s understandable, though I regret it. But I think there’s a huge difference between the nouns standard and standardization … a huge, critical, vital difference that I’d like to explore in the next few days.  For the moment, let me just say that I think experts hold themselves to a set of standards in their field, but they don’t (necessarily) follow a standardized process to get to those results.  Novices, on the other hand, and those who are on the continuum between novice and expert, are much more likely (1) to want a standardized process but (2) to be unable to achieve the standards that experts have set.  If you’re a fan of my favorite guilty-pleasure TV show, Cake Boss, imagine a young apprentice trying to produce one of Buddy’s masterpieces “by the book!”

quid respondētis amīcī? What do you think of this notion about why schools and school people are confused about experts and novices? And how can we – or can we – resolve that confusion within the confines of the current system?

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Published in: on August 1, 2012 at 2:19 pm  Comments (5)  

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5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Great post Justin. I think you are right – that demand for standardization too early, whether it was diagramming sentences, or mark up, or even – for that matter – spelling or even letter and number formation, teaches the majority of kids that learning (of this kind) is unattainably difficult, that answers are “magic” things without process or tools, and that the only path to survival is to try to memorize enough crap to survive.

    • Thanks, Ira! Standardization too early! I think that demand is closely connected with the confusion of expert-looking response with expert-level thought, which in turn is related to a confusion between process and product. More on that in my next post!

  2. […] a comment on yesterday’s post, Ira Socol brought up a really important point.  Schools, he says, tend to make a “demand […]

  3. […] Everywhere I turn these days, I keep seeing evidence of the pervasive confusion about experts and novices that we’ve been talking about for the past week or so. On the Latinteach listserv, a …  […]

  4. […] made progress on our own journeys from novice to […]


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