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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

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