General expertise – the gap between rote learning and a different sort of mastery

General expertise – the gap between rote learning and a different sort of mastery

The work of Fernand Gobet and Herbert Simon seems to indicate that expertise is ‘domain specific’. That is, you can only learn to be an expert or have mastery in a well-defined area or discipline. This is a challenge to someone who would like to argue for the value of a more general and interdisciplinary type of education for some students. Expertise is good, right? Graduates should have expertise. So how can we show that we are training habits of mind which are powerful and which will have a use beyond whatever current disciplines are well-defined at the time of study? Is there such a thing as ‘general mastery’ or is this a nonsense, a contradiction in terms?

There is a lot to unpack here – and this is just a first stab, with the usual caveats that I have not read all the literature, etc.

Firstly we should note that the work of Gobet and the example presented in the classic paper by Dreyfus and Dreyfus deal with expertise in very narrowly defined areas of knowledge. It is not too much of a stretch to say that it is certainly not necessary to be creative to master such domains. This is a cue for excellent chess players to write to me with claims that great chess is creative. I take that point. But it is true, is it not, that the best chess players are now computers? I.e. chess can be mastered by a finite set of rules and is, essentially, algorithmatizable? But I take it as self-evident that really original thinking is not algorithmatizable. This is, of course, a famous intellectual battleground on which strong AI guys tough it out with artists, various creatives and even the religious. I may (or may not) be one of these latter types, but I am in their camp on this one: the best thinking is not rule-based.

So we have a sense of conflict between this kind of expertise which is domain specific, which we clearly recognise as expertise (almost completely – if not completely -rule-based) and what we might call more creative thinking – a flavour of thinking which, at least I would like to claim, exhibits a type of mastery of its own.

I have a conviction that the fostering of a more generic ability to make interesting connections and, indeed, to think creatively is possible. I.e. that one can move towards mastery of a type of thinking which is not domain-specific and rule-based. But how could one prove this?

I think ‘proof’ of such a thing may indeed be difficult in the terms required by the psychology laboratory. Lab-based psychology generally requires that we change very few variables at a time. Further, the difficulty of extending laboratory conditions over long periods is considerable. These two facts together mean that it may indeed be difficult to get any kind of statistical match or recognisable ‘scientific’ result which links approaches to education and the mental attributes and achievements of those who go through that education.

So rather than attempt a laboratory experiment to prove something which may be impossible to prove in a laboratory I would like to attack this issue from completely the other side, as it were.

For think of this: there are many cultures in which it is clear that creativity is simply not on the education agenda. In many cultures, rote learning is all that is required, all that is offered and all that is valued. There is simply no talk of ‘making connections’, no talk of ‘fostering links’ or ‘crossing boundaries’ or even solving open problems. No talk of ‘innovation’, indeed. Creativity and education are divorced.  There may be mastery of a rote-learning type (do we recognise this as expertise?) but there is no evidence of creative thinking or any move towards a more general mastery of thinking for oneself and seeking out interesting problems and interesting ways to solve them.

It is one of my articles of faith that the students in such cultures in which this counts as education are poorer for it. The cultures in which these students live are often poorer for it, too. We have much evidence, from Koestler to Steven Johnson, that the sorts of leaps in thought which power innovation and progressive ideas come from approaches to knowledge which foster the making of connections, the crossing of boundaries and so on. Perhaps the use of the word ‘mastery’ for such thinking seems strange to us. Perhaps this is some part of the difficulty of matching an education which fosters and encourages such creative education with the notion of expertise: ‘mastery’ and ‘expertise’ go together for us but ‘mastery’ and ‘creative thinking’ to date have not.

It seems, then, we have gaps in the discussion which leave considerable room for debate. We can accept that expertise as usually defined is domain specific and requires training and knowledge in carefully defined areas of practice, but we must acknowledge that this sort of expertise is far from all that is desirable in higher education and we must explain how it is that some educational environments and processes lead to more creativity, originality and ingenuity in their students than others. Indeed, we can go so far as to say that some educational environments foster a type of ‘mastery’ of creative, divergent thinking, while others do not.

My belief is that by the best sort of rigorous, interdisciplinary education we can foster, stimulate and bring out the best sort of intellectual creativity in students. For this we need to move  away from a tick-box approach (and how perilously close are we with our tick-box culture to a rote-learning culture?) and erect the scaffolding so that students are set knowledge-based tasks which nevertheless require them to be creative and make their own connections. It may take considerable longitudinal studies and qualitative testimonies of students to gain the sort of evidence that will satisfy those who believe that laboratory answers to discussions about expertise are the only answers, but if we wish to foster more than a modern equivalent of rote learning and a limited notion of expertise, we must be brave and offer an alternative to any ossified orthodoxies.


Photo under CC license from Filter Forge

9 Responses to “General expertise – the gap between rote learning and a different sort of mastery”

  1. Kal says:

    I agree that generalist expertise is possible, and should be valued. I imagine that such a generalist would need facility (if not mastery) of a number of the more specific domains in order to effectively make those creative boundary-crossing connective leaps. Perhaps a question worthy of exporation is what number of domains, and mastery to what depth, is needed before we can call someone an expert generalist?

    And, a next question would be whether the sum total of creativity is in fact more in cultures that value creative education above rote-learning? After all, I don’t think we know whether the route to genuine interdiscplinarity is best achieved through first mastering several disciplines and then making connections, or vice versa?

    Thanks for some interesting thoughts.

    • Carl Gombrich - Personal Blog says:


      Thanks for your feedback. Your questions are very much in line with my own.

      I think these are really quite profound questions which do not invite easy answers. However, they are the right questions to ask if we believe there is value in an education which demands breadth and interdisciplinarity and encourages the sort of study more likely to lead to creative thinking, in contrast to a narrower education where a notion of ‘expertise’ may be more easily defined and grasped but there is a risk of learning in rote fashion. I recently read this paper on breadth and ‘cognitive complexity’ in great scientists which, as far as I know, is one of only a few attempts at a large, systematic study of these topics.,

  2. @leonie_learning says:

    Hi. I was really interested in expertise when studying psychology of learning, but found it daunting because it seems plausible that every type of expertise is different. Is there anything in common to say about an expert chess player/ radiologist / footballer / firefighter? Hoffman & Fiore 07 draw some interesting generalisations: that experts’ vast experience in their chosen field enables them to see things that novices just don’t notice – patterns may just ‘jump out’ at them with little effort; they may detect early-warning signs before others. More importantly, their knowledge enables them to interpret what they notice and make better decisions, possibly at an ‘instinctive’ level.

    Another challenge with expertise is there’s so much confusion in the field about who counts as an ‘expert’. The classic studies look at people with 10 years of practice at a particular ability, but other studies just compare graduates vs undergraduates. I’m not sure that an undergraduate degree produces expertise in a field – maybe ‘competence’ is a more useful concept here?

    Whether competence or expertise, researchers often interpret it in terms of judgement (Weiss & Shanteau 03 give 4 categories of expert judgement) This seems like the kind of ‘rule-based’ expertise that you’ve contrasted to creative expertise. However, complex problem-solving requires people to combine both original thinking & judgements (e.g. McGregor 07) I’m not familiar with creative thinking research, but would be interested in whether that’s also domain specific: do creative scientists make innovative business-people or ground-breaking artists?

    So trying to relate this to an inter-disciplinary expertise… maybe there is still a role for a perceptual/judgement type of expertise here. Alexander 03 may be helpful. For example, in biology, you might learn how to classify & recognise different types of tissue and their functions, or different types of disease and their effects. Similarly, maybe the competent interdisciplinary graduate can recognise different types of knowledge and how they are created, valued & shared?? Maybe (with deliberate practice?) they’d become quicker to orient themselves in an unfamiliar field, and better at drawing connections and comparisons to the fields they do know? In that way, they might recognise patterns that subject experts don’t see and interpret them in ways that are novel to that field.

    Links to the articles (which you might already be familiar with!)

    — Alexander (2003)

    — McGregor (2007)

    — Hoffman & Fiore (2007)

    –Weiss & Shanteay (2003)

  3. Carl Gombrich - Personal Blog says:

    Hi Leonie,

    Thank you for this interesting comment – and thank you for the links, which I will follow up.

    Your first paragraph on experts noticing things that others don’t reminds me of Gary Klein’s work on decision making. You may know this, as you refer to firefighters – one of his major studies? His ideas that intuition grows out of experience and building on Simon’s ideas of ‘satisficing’ seem in line with your questions here and take the opposite view to some theories of expert decision making which talk of scanning a heuristic space and contrasting various options before making a decision.

    Who counts as an expert is indeed tricky. (My students recently sent me Harry Collins’ paper on expertise 🙂 in which he argues that some types of ‘expertise’ are ubiquitous – e.g. driving a car – but that does not mean that they should be discounted as expertise.) One thing seems sure though: most graduates become experts in things that have little to do with the academic study of their university years. This, in a way, is the locus of my interest: what kind of rigorous and interesting higher level study can we provide so that graduate are best positioned to become experts in whatever they do in the long run?

    The final part of your comment points at what I believe is indeed the case: that with repeated practice at adapting to new situations, at being obliged to think creatively, at being asked to seek out and solve new problems and at being required to reflect on which questions to ask and how to work collaboratively to answer them, one is best placed to become an expert in more complex fields in the long run.

    • Kal Winston says:

      Indeed, it seems clear that if extended reflective practice in one context can lead to expertise, then practice at adapting to new contexts could lead to a generalist expertise. However, whether general expertise is attained likely depends on the depth of engagement with each new context. Rapid flitting from one context to the next, quick problem-solving without longer-term reflective evaluation, may lead to a shallowness of understanding masquerading as expertise. Whereas deep engagement over an extended period in each context may be more likely to result in that interconnective generalist expertise we are talking about.
      Of course, defining and recognizing high quality generalism is a major challenge. But, if we accept the 10,000 hours ‘rule’ for one discipline, would 2000 hours in five disciplines be equivalent? Or would additional hours be required for fostering explicit development of interconnections?
      Excuse my musings – this is just fascinating stuff.

      • Carl Gombrich - Personal Blog says:

        Thanks, Kal.

        I had a stab at this ‘10,000 hours’ question earlier on in my thinking about this: . One thing I am driving at here is that defining the nature of a ‘thing’ at which one can be an expert is a challenge in itself – quite apart from the notion of what an expert is. This is a discussion relevant to the connection (or lack of) between higher education and professional work.

        Whether what I say in this earlier blog is true or not, I think it is clear that modern professional jobs are complex and require a mindset which allows one to adapt, relearn quickly and connect old knowledge to new. An education which combines an approach to content (knowledge) with an approach to skills and which encourages this adaptive mindset would seem to be the best way to set a graduate up to be an expert in whatever it is they choose to do.

        • kal winston says:

          I couldn’t agree more: interdisciplinary training through skills + varied content is a powerful combination for developing minds for future adaptive expertise.
          By the way, I always want to thank you for the talk you gave at HEA STEM conference recently – thoroughly enjoyed that.

    • @leonie_learning says:

      Yes! I remember liking Klein’s firefighter study 🙂 I think he interpreted expertise as a kind of pattern recognition: people build up a store of typical patterns (or schemas) & can act quickly & confidently as soon as they recognise which pattern the situation fits. Hoffman developed an ‘accelerated training’ model (for the army?) based on lots of practice on realistic examples in varied contexts, with feedback both on outcomes and processes.

      Thank you for the Collins link. I think I need to read it more carefully to get a handle on all his categories! He seems to be saying that expertise must be absorbed from immersion in a community of practice, which contradicts Hoffman’s notion that we learn faster if concepts/techniques are presented explicitly then practised until they become instinctive. Which is why what Collins calls ‘interactionist expertise’ is valuable: it’s one thing to do something well and another to be able to explain how/why it was done – which is why we value good teachers & commentators.

      Shanteau (’92) also explored ideas about how what counts as expertise depends on what communal knowledge is available. Also, that the ability to develop personal/communal expertise depends on what you’re learning – it’s hard to get deliberate practice with something complex that changes all the time.
      I hope to read that Hollingsworth paper at some point too.

      The kinds of skills & attributes you mention sound more valuable than a particular body of knowledge (for many graduates). The discussion with Kal about depth vs breadth was also really interesting to follow. Your Arts & Sciences program would have really appealed to me, but I think I found the 1st year of my (natural sciences) degree overwhelming enough because we were encountering the tip of the iceberg of so many different vast topics. Taking your musical instrument example: having learnt one instrument probably makes it much easier to learn another one, but trying to learn 5 different ones at once might be confusing & demotivating! But it looks like UCL’s ‘core courses’ would help students navigate thru the variety. Wishing I was 18 again! 🙂

      • Carl Gombrich - Personal Blog says:

        The instruments example is interesting. At music college I think you have to have a second instrument to a high standard to join the college (at least you did in my day ;-)) and some people have three instruments to grade 8 when they arrive.

        It is true that in classical music it is pretty much unheard of to then go on to master two instruments to world class level (though some musicians do manage to be world greats at playing and conducting).

        However, in some pop/rock/jazz genres it is not that unusual to be brilliant at many instruments. Stevie wonder is a brilliant piano player, writer, singer, harmonic player and, personally, I like his drumming, too. There are many other examples: Harry Connick Jr, Roy Castle etc. Very recently, we have been enjoying the superb talent of multi-instrumentalist, writer and local boy Jacob Collier

        I’ve not seen academic work on this but I can well imagine that Stevie, Jacob and others might say that it is precisely the multiple perspectives and the cross-fertilisation between instruments that allows them to be the artists they are.

        Some might say that they are not outstandingly great at any one thing. But this misses the point. It is precisely the breadth that allows them to be great. Stevie wonder is a great artist and composer because of his breadth and the depth and richness of his work – which he could not have achieved by only knowing one instrument. Again, it is about what we mean by mastering a ‘thing’ – or, to attempt to be more academic about it: what is the ontology of a domain of mastery?

        So while 5 instruments at music college may be a little too many, maybe 2 or 3 is OK, or even positive.

        The music example is interesting because music seems to be an archetypal, well-defined and bounded ‘discipline’, so invites an interesting discussion of mastery.

        One of my questions is how, or if, such analogies in the world of music might apply to ‘academic’ subjects. Can we achieve a similarly productive cross-fertilisation in academic work. It would certainly seem plausible that one could be a Stevie or Jacob of the academic world, if only the university structures allowed it. Indeed, if such cross-fertilisation yields results in the clearly defined discipline of music then it seems positively likely that a similar approach should lead to creative results in academia where the boundaries of disciplines are generally less clearly defined.

        This then becomes a discussion of the sociology of knowledge, university power structures and the like, alongside a discussion of what we mean by mastery of a ‘discipline’.

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