The Myth of Expertise

The fox knows many things,
But the hedgehog knows one big thing.
                   -- Archilocus
For the past few days I've been attending our college's annual summer teaching institute.  Every year for the past seven or so years we bring in a nationally-recognized figure in higher education to talk about teaching and learning.  And every year we are told some variant of the same message: lecturing at students doesn't work, cramming your courses full of content that you absolutely have to cover doesn't work, and teacher-centered courses in which the professor's expertise is the most precious thing in the room just does not work.  The research and evidence on all of this is definitive.

This year's presenter said much the same thing. He showed us how staging opportunities for students to naively wrestle with a problem before having sufficient information was a powerful method for helping them to see the relevance of the information. To demonstrate this, he put us in groups and asked us to respond to the following problem:

A karate expert hits downward with his bare hand on a stack of three two-inch thick solid concrete blocks supported at both ends. Describe the physical process of what happens to the blocks (i.e.: envision the breakage in extreme slow motion).  Precisely where does the breakage begin; how and why?
After we had wrestled our way to a theory, he laid out the possible kinds of forces that could be at work.
  • Tensile stress (like pulling on a wire from both ends).
  • Compressive stress (like putting weight or force on something).
  • Shear stress (putting pressure on an object in opposing directions: the pressure exerted by scissors in cutting paper).
  • Elasticity (an object’s capacity to return to its original shape after receiving stress).
Many of these concepts had informed our naive speculation, but we hadn't given them names.  Some we hadn't thought of, which caused us to consider that a multiplicity or things might be happening.  So we revised our hypothesis in light of new information.  The point was that we had a problem to solve, we were working together trying out ideas and anxious for more information.  In short, we were thinking critically. 

The presenter pointed out the powerful learning dynamic that had just taken place in our naive inquiry.  Then he went on to the next PowerPoint slide.  Several of my colleagues stopped him: "So what's the answer?  Where does it break?"  This only bolstered his point that naive inquiry is about fostering an attitude of "I really need to know this." 

Contrast that with the dynamic in a traditional college classroom.  The professor lectures on the four kinds of stress at work in various material failures.  The students really have no authentic reason to know this information (except to pass a test that gauges only how well  they can recall it).  In short, the emphasis here is not on critical thinking; it's on the professor's holy expertise and the students' ability to process and retain the sacred content.  We have to start putting students in "need to know" situations, which they often find frustrating.  The presenter explained that we will know it's working when we start to hear students say things like "Why don't you just give us the answer?" or "You're the professor, but you aren't teaching us the material."

* * *

So yesterday I had to close out the summer institute by leading faculty in an exercise that would get them to think creatively about designing courses for our new core, which has four domains of inquiry: the natural world, the arts, society and human behavior, and faith and meaning. I labeled the four corners of a room with these domains and asked people to group themselves in the corner where they thought their discipline most belonged. 

As you can imagine, the hard scientists went to the corner labeled natural world, the social scientists to society and human behavior, the artists to the arts, etc.  At this point I tagged them with color-coded stickers and sent them off to design courses where they don't think they belong.  They were forbidden to design courses in their preferred place.  I was trying to foster interdisciplinary thinking as well as to reinforce the idea that the domains are not discipline specific.  The arts have things to say about the natural world and science has something to say about society and human behavior. 

Then I went from room to room listening.  At one point, some of my colleagues started saying, "I can't teach in this area.  I don't have the expertise."  There it was: the myth of expertise.  Even though we had spent two full afternoons experiencing the power of a different model of teaching and learning, the old paradigm hadn't budged: no learning can possibly take place without the professor's holy expertise being the most important thing in the classroom. 

The truth is that few of us are experts in most of what we teach.  I teach writing and lack expertise in comp and rhetoric, I teach some history, philosophy, and science in my capstone course and lack expertise in all of them.  Most professors are experts on fairly narrow subjects (like their dissertation topic) and then for only about a year.  I look back now on some of the stuff I wrote in grad school and think, "Wow, I used to be really smart."  Moreover, almost no one ever gets to teach the obscure area of his or her transient expertise.  On the undergraduate level, we are usually required to be foxes, not hedgehogs. 

Nevertheless, we cling to the myth that our expertise is the necessary requirement for student learning.  


Frida said…
so, what happened?
(glad to see you blogging through the summer break - your work is something i look forward to reading)
Professor Quest said…
Thanks Frida!

For the record, the break begins at the bottom of the top block.

As for what happened, well I got some faculty members saying they simply did not feel comfortable teaching beyond their narrow field of expertise.

This is part of what bugs me about the undergraduate experience. Ostensibly the aim of a liberal arts education is turn out broadly, well-educated human beings who think for themselves in a variety of contexts.

It might help if faculty modeled that goal.

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