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How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School
strata that experts first seek to develop an understanding of problems, and this often involves thinking in terms of core concepts or big ideas, such as Newton’s second law in physics. Novices’ knowledge is much less likely to be organized around big ideas; they are more likely to approach problems by searching for correct formulas and pat answers that fit their everyday intuitions.
Curricula that emphasize breadth of knowledge may prevent effective organization of knowledge because there is not enough time to learn anything in depth. Instruction that enables students to see models of how experts organize and solve problems may be helpful. However, as discussed in more detail in later chapters, the level of complexity of the models must be tailored to the learners’ current levels of knowledge and skills.
While experts possess a vast repertoire of knowledge, only a subset of it is relevant to any particular problem. Experts do not conduct an exhaustive search of everything they know; this would overwhelm their working memory (Miller, 1956). Instead, information that is relevant to a task tends to be selectively retrieved (e.g., Ericsson and Staszewski, 1989; deGroot, 1965).
The issue of retrieving relevant information provides clues about the nature of usable knowledge. Knowledge must be “conditionalized” in order to be retrieved when it is needed; otherwise, it remains inert (Whitehead, 1929). Many designs for curriculum instruction and assessment practices fail to emphasize the importance of conditionalized knowledge. For example, texts often present facts and formulas with little attention to helping students learn the conditions under which they are most useful. Many assessments measure only propositional (factual) knowledge and never ask whether students know when, where, and why to use that knowledge.
Another important characteristic of expertise is the ability to retrieve relevant knowledge in a manner that is relatively “effortless.” This fluent retrieval does not mean that experts always accomplish tasks in less time than novices; often they take more time in order to fully understand a problem. But their ability to retrieve information effortlessly is extremely important because fluency places fewer demands on conscious attention, which is limited in capacity (Schneider and Shiffrin, 1977, 1985). Effortful retrieval, by contrast, places many demands on a learner’s attention: attentional effort is being expended on remembering instead of learning. Instruction that focuses solely on accuracy does not necessarily help students develop fluency (e.g., Beck et al., 1989; Hasselbring et al., 1987; LaBerge and Samuels, 1974).
Expertise in an area does not guarantee that one can effectively teach others about that area. Expert teachers know the kinds of difficulties that students are likely to face, and they know how to tap into their students’ existing knowledge in order to make new information meaningful plus assess their students’ progress. In Shulman’s (1986, 1987) terms, expert teach-