Experts, expertise and learning


I’ve had a couple of interesting experiences lately that have got me thinking about the art of knowing, learning and being an expert…

I think we have all had the experience of a parent not trusting us as a professional who is an ‘expert’ in our field of teaching. I dare say doctors get patients coming in to tell them they have already diagnosed themselves with help from Dr. Google. It wouldn’t be surprising if architects are told how to do their job by an avid Grand Designs viewer…

So what’s happening to our world? Tom Nichols, in his book “The Death of Expertise” thinks we are not just loosing faith in experts but that we see it as a virtue.

“To rej22BOOKNICHOLS1-master180-v3ect the advice of experts is to assert autonomy, a way for Americans to insulate their increasingly fragile egos from ever being told they’re wrong about anything. It is a new Declaration of Independence: No longer do we hold these truths to be self-evident, we hold all truths to be self-evident, even the ones that aren’t true. All things are knowable and every opinion on any subject is as good as any other.”

He thinks we are caught up in our very own confirmation bias bubble, where we are exposed to much more information than ever before. However, this information tends to be cherry picked and biased towards what we already think and believe. On top of this, real experts don’t always make their way into our wee bubble, leaving room for charlatans to spread misinformation and people to believe some pretty wacky things.

“…romantic notions about the wisdom of the common person or the gumption of the self-educated genius.”

But confirmation bias is only one of our fallibilities as humans. Another cognitive quirk that comes into play here is the Dunning Kruger Effect where, if we don’t know much about something, we mistakenly think we do and fail to see our own incompetence. Perhaps this goes some way to explain why we can be super confident as beginning teachers, then sometimes loose confidence as we learn more and discover just how much more we can learn to develop our practice… Perhaps this helps explain why we often rate ourselves highly on PD rubrics before we begin the PD then, as we learn more we grow more realistic in our self assessments…

I think schools have an enormous role to play, if we take Nichols’ view as true, especially if we are indeed living in a ‘post-truth era.’ I don’t know that anyone would argue the importance of teaching critical and analytical thinking skills in schools. I think the question is – How do we teach this? How do we teach that science is so much more than doing a fun Coke and Mentos experiment? How do we teach that we need to be really discerning with information we find on the internet or in our day-to-day interactions with others? How do we instill the idea that knowledge is different to belief?

Perhaps a good start would be to model and live it. I attended the Campus Link conference “Turning Point: Changing Landscape of Education” recently and a key theme that kept coming up in so many of the talks is EVIDENCE! What is the evidence that a certain intervention will be successful? Why do we feel that to do something, anything, now is better than to do something soon, once we have done some homework to ensure that intervention is actually evidence based? Why do we jump onto ideas based on a snipit of information provided to us by a colleague, when we could evaluate the evidence or inquire further into the idea?

Bryk_front-cover_web_revPerhaps here, we can learn from the ideas in this book:

Rather than “implementing fast and learning slow,” the authors believe educators should adopt a more rigorous approach to improvement that allows the field to “learn fast to implement well.”

Ensuring we have a curious and inquiring mindset would help too, I think – always evaluating our own beliefs and assumptions and building our own knowledge…