I first became acquainted with the curse of expertise through Dr. Pamela Hind’s work. Her research findings illuminated the possibility that experts often fail in their attempts to accurately estimate the difficulty that novices face upon attempting new tasks.
In Hind’s study, those with intermediate levels of expertise were more likely to accurately predict how novices would perform. These findings fascinated me, because they validated much of what I notice when I work with young writers: they often respond best when their mentors are only slightly more knowledgeable or skilled than they are.
Consider the implications.
What if a learner’s best teacher wasn’t the expert in the room, but a peer who was sitting right beside them? Other writers and researchers have explored this phenomenon as well, including cognitive scientist Dr. Sian Beilock and author and journalist Annie Paul Murphy. Both women concluded that experts may struggle to understand the experiences of novices, perhaps because they’ve forgotten what it’s like to be one themselves. As it turns out, humility may be one of our greatest assets as teachers and our willingness to yield the instructional floor one of our most promising practices.
Are you interested in test driving this theory yourself?
Explore these approaches:
1. Collect and analyze the right data. In this case, you’ll need to help learners define their standards and reflect on their expertise. Make a study of what they find difficult and what they feel they’re proficient in. Thinking logs, reflective journals, and photo challenges like this one enable this well. Consider prompts like these:
Which portion of today’s learning was easiest for you? What was most challenging? Why?
What satisfied you most as a learner today? What frustrated you? Why?
Where are you gaining confidence as a learner? Where are you losing it? Why is this happening?
When did you feel most proud of yourself as a learner today? Why?
What did you learn or accomplish today that you feel you could teach someone else?
2. Take time to reflect on your own experiences as a learner. Make a concerted effort to recall what it was like to be a novice. If possible, invite people who knew you then to share what they remember of your experiences too.
3. Include learners in the planning process. As new learning targets are defined, ask novices to predict where struggle may happen and why. Tap those with greater expertise to share their recollections of learning with you. Use this information to guide unit and lesson design. Use it to inform your instructional approaches as well. Student voice is the most important voice in the room.
4. Teach bit by bit. Doing so not only makes new learning less overwhelming, it enables learners to stop and reflect far more frequently. This allows them to identify the specific content, skills, learning moments, and approaches that challenged them and the ones that moved them forward as well. They need to make this thinking visible early and often so that others are able to leverage their expertise.
5. Identify the intermediate learners in your midst. Rather than pairing novices with experts, connect them with mentors whose expertise is just slightly higher than their own. For instance, when writers approach me for help writing dialogue, I’ll often connect them to another writer in the room who recently demonstrated skill in this area. When learners are struggling to use a new device, I’ll connect them with others who use the tool with dexterity.
Context influences how we distinguish a novice from an intermediate or an expert learner. This is often informed by standards and expectations. I know many first graders who are expert story writers, and they can coach their friends to map stories well. Their expertise is different from the adult writers who visit our writing studio, though. Some may believe that it is actually far less, but experience has taught me that it is just right. What I’ve learned about the curse of expertise validates these discoveries.
The wonderful thing about learning is that it never ends. We’re always gaining expertise, regardless of how old we are, how much experience we have, or how much we think we know. The next time you believe you’re in need of an expert, consider turning to a peer who is just a few paces ahead on a shared learning curve. Chances are, they have a thing or two to teach you, and they may be better at it than those who have been anointed experts.
A former English teacher, Angela Stockman is the founder of the WNY Young Writer's Studio, a community of writers and teachers of writing in Buffalo, New York. She is also an education consultant with expertise in curriculum design, instructional coaching, and assessment. Read more from Angela at Angelastockman.com.
A former English teacher, Angela Stockman is the founder of the WNY Young Writer’s Studio, a community of writers and teachers of writing in Buffalo, New York. She is also an education consultant with expertise in curriculum design, instructional coaching, and assessment. Read more from Angela at Angelastockman.com.