Education for Increasing Expertise
If your only interest is access to the free book, click on the second item in the Contents listed below.
- “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed it's the only thing that ever has.” (Margaret Mead; 1901–1978.)
- "Try to learn something about everything and everything about something." (Thomas H. Huxley; English writer; 1825–1895.)
There are many possible ways in which to improve our educational system. This document focuses two ideas:
- Facilitating students to take steadily increasing responsibility for their own education.
- Emphasizing student learning for building expertise—the knowledge and skills to solve problems and accomplish tasks using their own physical and mental capabilities in conjunction with: A) contemporary tools designed to aid physical and mental capabilities; B) the physical and mental capabilities of other people; and C) the accumulated knowledge of the human race.
We want students to learn to be independent, self-reliant, lifelong learners. This includes learning to work with others on a team, learning to learn from others, and learning to help others learn. We want them to become responsible adults, able to function well in our rapidly changing world. We want them to understand the global problem of sustainability and to actively contribute to addressing this problem. Some schools and some education systems do much better at this than others.
This document is divided into two major parts. The first part provides an introduction to a book designed to be read by students who are in middle school or junior high school. This short book is available free on the Web. Parents and teachers will also benefit from reading the book. The goal of the book is to help its readers learn to take an increased level of responsibility for their own education.
The second part of the document focuses on the idea that one of the major goals of education is to help people gain expertise in areas deemed important by our society and in areas deemed important by the students. Many school systems are becoming more and more prescriptive. They are driven by the goal of students passing high stakes tests in a very few areas. This is occurring at a time when students are having ever increasing access to the people and the collected knowledge of the world. Thus, there is growing conflict between the requirements of formal schooling and the intrinsically motivated learning goals of students.
The idea that is pursued is that our children are growing up in a very rapidly changing world. Computer technology and other technologies such as nanotechnology and gene technology are powerful change agents. Our children need an education that is appropriately rooted in the past but that is strongly oriented toward preparing then to be adults who are responsible and productive, and who are lifelong learners.
Free Book: Becoming More Responsible for Your Education
One of the major goals of informal and formal education is to help students develop various areas of expertise. There is substantial agreement around the world that reading, writing, and arithmetic are areas in which all students should develop a reasonable level of expertise. There is also considerable agreement that children should learn the culture and values of the family and community in which they are growing up.
This means that every child is faced by learning demands being imposed by family, community, culture, and schools. At the same time, children are exposed to the widely differing cultures and values of others throughout the world.
Here is an analogy that might help to shed some light on the situation. Young children are protected by their parents, care givers, and community. In some sense they are enclosed by a wall that keeps out many potentially harmful influences and ideas. As children get older, they are increasingly exposed to ideas and influences from outside their sheltered environment.
Some cultures and countries think of these outside influences and ideas as a bad thing. Others encourage their children to learn to think "outside of the box" (think "outside of the wall") and to prepare for a productive, responsible, creative, and satisfying life as an adult in our "global village."
The following free book was specifically written for students in their early teens. Its goal is to help such students learn to take an increasing level of responsibility for their own education.
Quoting from the book's Preface:
- This short book was written for students in their early teens. Many other students, their teachers, and their parents can benefit from it.
- In this book, “you” means a person perhaps in the 6th to 9th grade. This is an age when your mind and body are changing rapidly. Most people achieve physical maturity in their late teens. Most people achieve mental maturity in their mid 20s.
- This book will help you move toward achieving your brain’s potentials. It will help prepare you for lifelong learning and effective lifelong use of your brain.
- Education, training, and experience prepare you to deal with situations you will encounter in the future. However, there is one “slight problem.” The problem is a conflict between immediate and delayed gratification. Learning uses time that you might be using to do other things. Some of the other things will be more fun and less work. They will bring more immediate gratification.
- Sometimes you may find it difficult to be responsible for your future. It is not easy to think about the future consequences of the decisions you make every day. It is not each to make plans that will take years to achieve. However, this book can help you.
- A very important part of your future depends on learning to make use of the collected knowledge of the human race. Much of this information is stored in physical libraries of books, magazines, maps, and so on. However, much is stored in computers—in virtual libraries—that can help you access, process, learn, and use the information.
- This is a fundamental idea in a good, Information Age Education. As a simple example, think of a static physical book versus an interactive, computerized book. The computerized book may be very easy to access. It may contain computer-assisted instruction. In addition, it can solve many of the kinds of problems it is teaching about.
- Now, expand your thinking. Think in terms of a computerized robot. Such a robot is a computer with some input and output devices it can control. Robots have a type of “brainpower” that is a lot different than human brainpower. This type of brainpower is called artificial intelligence.
- Machines with artificial intelligence can do lots of things faster and better than humans just using their human brain. Humans can do lots of things better than robots. Nowadays, many problems are being solved by the combination of human and artificial intelligence.
- The capabilities of computers and robots are increasing very rapidly. You need an education that prepares you to effectively use both human and computer capabilities.
- By age 12, many students are beginning to have the mental maturity to take a major role in their own education. They can help decide what they will learn and how well they will learn it. They can take increasing responsibility for their informal and formal education.
- This book will help you learn to take more responsibility for your informal and formal education. It will help you prepare yourself for adult life in our Information Age world.
- Your adult life will include helping to deal with some problems that are far beyond what any one person can solve. An example is the problem called sustainability. Each of us uses and contributes to the resources of our planet. Each of us is capable of developing a life style that helps to solve the problem of sustainability—or that increases the problem. As you learn to take more responsibility for yourself, you also need to be learning to take more responsibility for our planet Earth.
Introduction to Education for Increased Expertise
Each person is a lifelong student and a lifelong teacher. In every communication with others, we both learn and we teach. As we pursue our everyday activities, our brain receives and processes a steady stream of input from our senses. Processing and acting upon this input stream is a learning experience.
The intact human brain is innately curious and has an enormous capacity to learn. Reflect, for a moment, on a child learning to communicate in a "natural" language of sounds and gestures. This is a huge learning achievement. Learning to communicate effectively in a natural language is possible because of a child's genetic gifts (nature) and environment (nurture) working together.
A child's informal and formal education contribute to increasing levels of expertise in a very wide range of areas. In essence, a child develops islands of expertise, with higher levels of expertise in some areas than in others. The home environment makes a huge difference in what areas of expertise are developed and the depth and breadth of this development.
Our overall formal educational system has some good insight into areas of expertise that are likely to prove useful to students in their futures. Thus, for example, our schools have long included a strong focus on reading, writing, and arithmetic. These have proven useful over the thousands of years during which formal schools have existed.
However, our educational system has less insight into other types of schooling that will prove useful to today's students during their life as adults in our rapidly changing world. And, where it does have good insights, it faces many challenges in implementing needed changes to our current schooling system.
As an example, consider the idea that schools should provide authentic content and authentic assessment. In the "developed" nations of the world, many adults routinely work in environments in which they have access to computers and telecommunication systems whenever they need them. They work collaboratively with other people and with computers as they solve problems and accomplish tasks. Our educational system is not dealing with the challenge of such an open computer, open connectivity environment. That is, in most of our schools curriculum content, instructional processes, and assessment are not very authentic!
Here is a challenging question. Through one's formal schooling, what should a student memorize and what should a student learn at a higher-order, deeper cognitive level? Steadily improving access to information and to people (such as via the Internet and telecommunication systems) affects how one might answer this question. Our current educational system places too much emphasis on rote memorization (accompanied with a low level of understanding) and too little emphasis on being able to learn "just in time" drawing on the resources being made available by Information and Communication Technology.
Another closely related question is what should a student learn about solving a particular general category of problems if a computer system can readily solve such problems? A modern education pays careful attention to the idea that Two Brains (Human & Computer are Better Than One.
Each discipline has its own ideas as to what constitutes an increasing level of expertise and how to go about helping students to achieve an increasing level of expertise. Each discipline has its own ideas on what constitutes being a novice, reasonably good, very good, and "world class" within the discipline. Depending on the discipline, one might demonstrate their level of expertise through performances, presentations, competitions, products produced, knowing about the culture and history of the discipline, and so on.
Disciplines draw upon and make use of accumulated knowledge within the discipline and tools that have been developed to aid in learning and "doing" the discipline. Such tools are sometimes divided into the two categories: aids to the brain/mind and aids to the physical body.
Thus, reading and writing are brain/mind tools while shovel and hoe are physical body tools. Many tools are a combination of brain/mind and physical body tools. An airplane with an auto pilot and GPS system is a modern example of such a combination tool.
When reading and writing were first invented, schools were developed to help people learn to use these mind tools. It takes quite a long time for a child to learn to read and write well enough to be useful in a reading/writing work setting. Contrast this with young children in hunter-gatherer and agrarian societies who could learn enough to do useful work at a quite young age.
In some sense, from the beginning formal schooling has had to face several major challenges. Among them were:
- Delayed gratification. This may be especially difficult for children. But, parents and employers awaiting the graduation of the educated students have long wait
- Totality of human knowledge. How to deal with a totality of human knowledge that is much larger than any student could possibly learn, and that was increasing rapidly due to the invention of reading and writing? For example, what should students memorize versus what should students learn how to look up in a book using their reading skills?
- Transfer of learning. How to effectively teach for transfer of learning. A major goal in school is to help prepare students to deal with life outside of school—especially, life after they finish their schooling.
Our formal schooling system has had thousands of years to work on these challenges. Still, the resulting curriculum, instruction, and assessment is never acceptable to all stakeholder groups. People have widely varying opinions as to what constitutes a good education.
Information and communication technology is bringing use a large number of combination tools that contribute to challenges being faced by our educational system. Here are two examples:
- Consider highly interactive, intelligent, computer-assisted learning (HIICAL) systems. Within certain parts of certain disciplines, such systems can out perform human teachers. The theory and practice of HIICAL is gradually improving, while the cost of the needed hardware is decreasing. Such brain/mind tool progress is a major challenge to our current teacher-centered schooling system.
- Consider the steadily growing collection of problems and tasks that computers and automated machinery can solve/accomplish. What should students be learning in the specific areas where computers and computerized systems can already outperform high level human experts?
From a student point of view, answers to the two challenges might be:
- I want to make use of aids to learning that are most effective and efficient.
- In areas where people and machines working together can achieve a level of expertise that I want to achieve, I want an education that facilitates this. Don't provide me with an education in which I learn to compete with computers and computerized machines. Instead, provide me with an education that is oriented towards gaining the expertise in which I work with the appropriate brain/mind and physical body tools.
The student answer suggest a major change in our schooling system. The focus becomes a focus on helping students to gain increasing levels of expertise. In demonstrating expertise, a student makes use of contemporary brain/mind tools and physical body tools. The curriculum content, instructional processes, and assessment are aligned and authentic.
Moreover, there strong attention is paid to how rapidly our world is changing. A student needs an education that has a strong focus on learning to gain a personally satisfying or an employer-satisfying level of expertise in a new areas.
Because the totality of human accumulated knowledge is so large and is growing so fast, there needs to be a much greater emphasis on students learning to learn how to be independent, self-driven learners. Obviously, schools will continue to emphasize students learning a curriculum set by educational experts and other adults. Obviously, part of this curriculum includes learning to learn and learning to be a independent, self-sufficient learner.
This latter "obvious" opens up curriculum to students selecting areas in which they have a strong personal interest in gaining expertise, and helping them to do so. As student's progress through school should include marked progress in increasing expertise at being responsibility for his or her education.
Genius: The Modern View (David Brooks)
- Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration. Thomas A. Edison.
Brooks, David (4/30/2009). Genius: The Modern View. The New York Times. Retrieved 6/18/09: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/01/opinion/01brooks.html?_r=1.
This article is an Op-Ed Opinion Piece. It provides insights on what it takes to become relatively good in some area. Quoting from the article:
- Some people live in romantic ages. They tend to believe that genius is the product of a divine spark. They believe that there have been, throughout the ages, certain paragons of greatness—Dante, Mozart, Einstein—whose talents far exceeded normal comprehension, who had an other-worldly access to transcendent truth, and who are best approached with reverential awe.
- We, of course, live in a scientific age, and modern research pierces hocus-pocus. In the view that is now dominant, even Mozart’s early abilities were not the product of some innate spiritual gift. His early compositions were nothing special. They were pastiches of other people’s work. Mozart was a good musician at an early age, but he would not stand out among today’s top child-performers.
- What Mozart had, we now believe, was the same thing Tiger Woods had—the ability to focus for long periods of time and a father intent on improving his skills. Mozart played a lot of piano at a very young age, so he got his 10,000 hours of practice in early and then he built from there.
The Edison quote at the beginning of this section captures the essence of what Brooks is saying. Hard work over a long period of time is the key. The article provides a nice scenario of a young student experiencing some success in an area, becoming motivated, and working very hard over long period of time in order to achieve a high level of success.
In summary, a high level of success comes from a combination of nature, nurture, and drive—a very long term intense commitment.
Breadth and Depth
The quote from Thomas Huxley at the beginning of this document provides a good summary of one way to design an educational system. Design the system so studetns get a broad general education and so that they develop one or more areas of relatively deep expertise.
Nowadays, the totality of human knowledge is so large and is growing so fast, that it is not possible for a person to learn something about everything or everything about something. Thus, instead of trying to learn something about everything, we want students to learn to learn add to be able to attack a new learning task with confidence. We want students to develop a relatively high level of expertise in one or more areas that will be useful in being a productive and responsible adult citizen.
Having an area of relative expertise provides a student with a general benchmark against which to measure his or her levels of expertise in other areas. The overall process of gaining this relatively high level of expertise sows the student that s/he is capable of excelling through a process of hard work over an extended period of time.
Many people gain a high level of expertise in an advocational area. A person might be an artist, musician, singer, dancer, stage performer, little league sports coach, and etc. for recreati0n and personal enjoyment, and work in some completely different field to make a living.
Long before schools were developed, children received formal instruction in hunting, gathering, helping to take care of younger children and aged adults, and other activities contributing to the welfare of the tribe or clan. Much of this was a "learn by imitation and doing" type of education. You might want to think of this as an apprenticeship type of education. The outcome of such an education was a child's increasing level of expertise in being able to do things considered important to the survival and welfare of the tribe or clan.
This situation began to change about 12,000 years ago as agriculture was first being developed. Agriculture allowed greater concentrations of people who lived together in villages, towns, and cities. It allowed more people to spend a lifetime becoming experts in a narrow area. It agrarian societies, young children gain skills in farming and animal care that contribute to the welfare of their family and community. Child could learn to make such a contribution at a very young age.
Eventually, just a little over 5,000 years ago, reading and writing were invented. This presented a new educational challenge. The challenge was met by developing schools, not unlike the schools we have today. Students came together in a room and were taught by a teacher. The teacher had a reasonable level of expertise in the content areas (reading and writing), in the teaching process, and in assessing outcomes for various students.
Teachers found that students varied considerably in how rapidly and how well students learned reading and writing, and how to use their reading and writing knowledge. Here is a quote from about 2,400 years ago:
- Did you mean to say that one man may acquire a thing easily, another with difficulty; a little learning will lead the one to discover a great deal; whereas the other, after much study and application, no sooner learns than he forgets? (Plato, 4th century B.C.)
Now, move the clock forward to current times. For many children formal education may begin quite early. In many homes children are read to, learn to play with "educational" toys and games, and are prepared for the time they will actually start school.
Formal schooling tends to change education from a bottom-up apprenticeship type of education into a top-down, narrowly prescribed type of education. Most countries have a national educational system, with the curriculum content, instructional processes, and assessment being governed at a national level. The United States has a system that is a mixture of state level and federal level.
Much of our current formal schooling system is strongly rooted in the needs and technologies of long past. For example, in England during the early part of the Industrial Revolution, it was decided that young children should not work in factories. Instead, they should go to school. School provide a way of keeping children out of the factories and off the streets. They received formal education that helped prepare them for productive and responsible life as they got older.
While the Industrial Age was emerging, most people still lived and worked on farms. For example, during the time of the Revolutionary War that led to the creation of the United States of America, about 90 percent of the American colonies population were farmers. Then, and later, as schools were developed, students took the summer off from school to do farm work.
Textbooks have been a major aid to our educational system. The six to seven year adoption cycle helps to decrease the yearly cost. However, it does not fit well with a rapidly changing world. Also, it does not fit well with providing students easy access to the learning materials (such as specific books) that they have become familiar with, but that they can no longer readily access after they have completed the year of schooling that used the book.
The number of years of formal schooling required of students has grown over the years. Now, in the United States, students are expected to go to school until age 16 or more. In many states, the requirement is to go to school until age 18 or until graduating from high school.
Over the past couple of centuries, our teacher education system has become relatively standardized throughout the country. Requirements have steadily grown, so now it is typical for a precollege teacher to have a master's degree or roughly its equivalent. However, we keep experimenting with other forms of teacher preparation and a certification.
The Knowledge "Explosion"
However, the totality of human knowledge has grown very rapidly, and it has outpaced changes in our educational systems. Nowadays, it is estimated that the total collected knowledge of the human race is doubling every five to ten years. Information and Communication Technology (ICT) has contributed substantially to this collection and dissemination of information.
The contribution of ICT can be seen in every academic discipline. The contribution is much deeper than a mere collection of information and making it more readily available. ICT also allows the storage of information in a form that computers can process the information. Computers, robots, and other computerized machinery can solve or help to solve many of the problems that people previously learned to solve by hand. Moreover, progress in artificial intelligence, computer programming, and in building more powerful computers leads to a steady increase in the number and types of problems that computers can solve.
ICT's contributions to educational research and to brain science mean we have steadily increasing insight into how the brain works and ways in which to better educate students.
Progress in ICT and transportation have made the world much "smaller" and "flatter." Competition for jobs is steadily becoming a worldwide competition. The quality of a person's education is increasingly being judged against state, national, and international standards.
All of the above ideas combine to give us some insight into the challenges faced by our educational system and by students in this educational system.
Some Pathways to Tackling the Education Challenge
The totality of human knowledge will continue to grow quite rapidly in the future. Various technologies will continue to contribute to major change in the world. The overall problem of sustainability is growing steadily.
Readers of this document are strongly encouraged to contribute their ideas on what local, state, national, and global educational systems can do to address these problems. Here are some suggestions:
- Two brains. Educate students so that they learn to use both their own brains and the "brain power" of computers in solving problems and accomplishing tasks. And, of course, the educational system needs to include a strong focus on students learning to use both their own physical capabilities and the capabilities of machines in solving problems and accomplishing tasks.
- Responsibility and empowerment. Educate and empower students so they learn to take a steadily increasing level of responsibility for their own education. Empower teachers to work well in this environment.
- Future. Make our educational system more future oriented. Help students to become prepared for life in a rapidly changing world. Develop developmentally appropriate educational materials for students that give them access to major ongoing research and development in the "world-changing" areas of science, medicine, technology, business, politics, and so on.
- Problem solving and critical thinking. Place increased emphasis on students learning problem solving and critical thinking in each discipline they study.
- Sustainability. Sustainability is a global problem for many, and a problem situation for many others. Help all students understand the problem situation of sustainability and to learn to help contribute toward dealing with this problem. Part of the study of each discipline should include an analysis of how the discipline contributes to helping to create the problem of sustainability and how it might help to solve the problem of sustainability.
Author or Authors
The initial version of this page was developed by David Moursund.
Bloom, Benjamin S. and Sosniak, Lauren A. (1981). Talent Development. ASCD Educational Leadership. Retrieved 11/1/08: http://www.ascd.org/ASCD/pdf/journals/ed_lead/el_198111_bloom.pdf.
- This article summarizes some of the findings from a study of 120 people who achieved at a very high level before the age of 35. It provides insights into talented and gifted development. It was found that most of the people selected were well started in their development of a high level of expertise in an area by the time they were 12.
John D. Bransford & Daniel L. Schwartz. It Takes Expertise to Make Expertise: Some Thoughts about Why and How and Reflections on the Themes in Chapters 15-18. Retrieved 2/17/09: http://aaalab.stanford.edu/papers/Takes_Expertise_to_Make_Expertise%5B1%5D.pdf
Damon, William (October 2008). The moral north star. Educational Leadership. Retrieved 10/14/08: http://www.ascd.org/portal/site/ascd/template.MAXIMIZE/menuitem.c00a836e7622024fb85516f762108a0c/?javax.portlet.tpst=818d37ec925d82800173fc1062108a0c_ws_MX&javax.portlet.prp_818d37ec925d82800173fc1062108a0c_viewID=article_view&javax.portlet.prp_818d37ec925d82800173fc1062108a0c_journalmoid=27c382b861c8c110VgnVCM1000003d01a8c0RCRD&javax.portlet.prp_818d37ec925d82800173fc1062108a0c_articlemoid=20f382b861c8c110VgnVCM1000003d01a8c0RCRD&javax.portlet.begCacheTok=token&javax.portlet.endCacheTok=token.
This is an article for educators that captures some of the essence of Moursund's "Taking Responsibility" book. Here is an example quoted from the document:
- Early in that first year of high school, for one of my weekly assignments in English class, I handed in my usual half-finished and thoroughly mediocre piece of work. But this time I made the mistake of muttering a feeble excuse as I passed the essay to my teacher, along the lines of “I didn't spend much time on this, but I know these weekly assignments don't count for much.” My teacher, a crusty old gentleman who had undoubtedly seen thousands of similarly lackadaisical efforts in his time, nevertheless took the time to pull me aside for a word of advice. He peered over his glasses, fixed me in a stern gaze, and said, “Mr. Damon, everything you do in this world counts.” Perhaps because of the earnest way he said it, or perhaps because the idea was so foreign to my careless way of thinking at the time, the message left an impression that kept ringing in my ears from that day forward.
Here are two more paragraphs quoted from the article:
- The question of purpose is what psychologists call an ultimate concern (Emmons, 1999) because it gives meaning to short-term goals (such as passing tests and getting good grades) by asking where these short-term goals will lead. Purpose acts as a moral north star on the route to excellence: It offers a steady beacon for inspiring and directing students' best efforts over the long haul, within the classroom and beyond.
- Unfortunately, highly purposeful students are the exception rather than the rule in our classrooms. In research for the Stanford Youth Purpose Project (Damon, 2008), we found that about 20 percent of students in our diverse national sample were approaching their studies with a clear sense of purpose. These youngsters stood out from their peers because they knew why they were in school: They had found a meaningful direction for their lives, and they wanted to prepare themselves for it. They appeared to be thriving in the classroom and beyond.