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How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School
Beliefs about what it means to be an expert can affect the degree to which people explicitly search for what they don’t know and take steps to improve the situation. In a study of researchers and veteran teachers, a common assumption was that “an expert is someone who knows all the answers” (Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt, 1997). This assumption had been implicit rather than explicit and had never been questioned and discussed. But when the researchers and teachers discussed this concept, they discovered that it placed severe constraints on new learning because the tendency was to worry about looking competent rather than publicly acknowledging the need for help in certain areas (see Dweck, 1989, for similar findings with students). The researchers and the teachers found it useful to replace their previous model of “answer-filled experts” with the model of “accomplished novices.” Accomplished novices are skilled in many areas and proud of their accomplishments, but they realize that what they know is minuscule compared to all that is potentially knowable. This model helps free people to continue to learn even though they may have spent 10 to 20 years as an “expert” in their field.
The concept of adaptive expertise (Hatano and Inagaki, 1986) provides an important model of successful learning. Adaptive experts are able to approach new situations flexibly and to learn throughout their lifetimes. They not only use what they have learned, they are metacognitive and continually question their current levels of expertise and attempt to move beyond them. They don’t simply attempt to do the same things more efficiently; they attempt to do things better. A major challenge for theories of learning is to understand how particular kinds of learning experiences develop adaptive expertise or “virtuosos.”
Experts’ abilities to reason and solve problems depend on well-organized knowledge that affects what they notice and how they represent problems. Experts are not simply “general problem solvers” who have learned a set of strategies that operate across all domains. The fact that experts are more likely than novices to recognize meaningful patterns of information applies in all domains, whether chess, electronics, mathematics, or classroom teaching. In deGroot’s (1965) words, a “given” problem situation is not really a given. Because of their ability to see patterns of meaningful information, experts begin problem solving at “a higher place” (deGroot, 1965). An emphasis on the patterns perceived by experts suggests that pattern recognition is an important strategy for helping students develop confidence and competence. These patterns provide triggering conditions for accessing knowledge that is relevant to a task.
Studies in areas such as physics, mathematics, and history also demon-