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I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Friday, 31 August 2018

"Surpassing Ourselves" by Carl Bereiter and Marlene Scardamalia

This is an inquiry into the nature of expertise. It is a carefully crafted academic study. However, you could use it as a self-help book if you wanted to become an expert. Beware! It is not easy and this book promises no short cuts.

The characteristics of expertise are:

  • That it is effortful: “If ease and naturalness are the criteria, then ... fish are expert swimmers and Olympic breaststrokers are not" (p 4). “Many experts ... are active, striving people. They work long hours, usually at something they consider to be quite difficult, and they tend to set standards for themselves and others that are always at least slightly beyond reach. When at liberty to do so, one of the first things they will admit is that they are deplorable ignorant.” (p 34) “A distinguishing characteristic of the most creative people in many fields is the sheer volume of their productivity.” (p 124)
  • It may involve specialization but it is not just specialization. 
  • It probably involves formal knowledge but it certainly involves informal knowledge. This is the sort of impressionistic knowledge, often based on formal knowledge, which is displayed in 'connoiseurship': "Connoisseurs are experts who possess highly developed impressionistic knowledge of whatever their speciality entails.” (p 55)
  • Fundamentally experts "choose to address the problems of their field at the upper limit of the complexity they can handle” (p 20). And they develop from novices to their position of expertise by "progressive problem solving" (passim); that is by never resting on their laurels but instead always “seeking out more difficult problems” (p 93) or “tackling more complex representations of recurrent problems” (p 94). "They work at the edge of their competence ... Working at the edge of competence is risky and taxing, but it yields two great benefits. It results in superior accomplishments ... and it leads to further growth as competence advances” (p 98). “Experts, we propose, tackle problems that increase their expertise, whereas non-experts tend to tackle problems for which they do not have to extend themselves.” (p 78). Non-experts seek to proceduralise their knowledge: “These processes of proceduralization continue until the originally problem-fraught activity becomes, as is said, ‘automatic’. Automaticity is the great freer of mental resources, but it is obtained at a cost. The cost is loss of conscious access. It becomes difficult to modify a well-practiced procedure.” (p 89) But the aim is to develop “performance that is ‘good enough’.” (p 91) After all, imost subcultures, as one learns “life becomes less problematic and learning tapers off ... the process of expertise is deviant.” (p 105) Experts seek continual improvement. The early ability to proceduralise provides “mental resources available to re-invest ... in the pursuit of new goals.” (p 79 -80)
  • This can result in the "experience of sustained pleasure" known as "flow" (p 103). “Flow ... requires a nice balance between ability and challenge. If challenge exceeds ability, the result is anxiety and frustration rather than flow. If ability exceeds challenge, the result is boredom. Combined with the inevitable effect of learning, this means that repetition of the same activity will eventually cease to produce the flow experience. It will get too easy. Something must be done to increase the level of challenge so as to bring it into harmony with the increasing level of ability.” (p 102)

But “if the process of expertise is so addictively enjoyable ... why doesn't everyone practice it and thus become an expert? Flow is much harder to achieve in some situations than others ... In many highly routinized jobs it is difficult to perceive problems. ... [In] work situations in which people perceive problems as insoluble ... anxiety is the dominant experience” (p 103 - 104). The sorts of environments in which expertise can be developed include:
  • Competitive sports in which as one improves one challenges others to improve which in turn challenges oneself to improve further. This is a bit like the dog eat cat aspect of natural selection results in evolution.
  • Science in which each scientist continually builds on the work of others in a partly competitive but essentially cooperative endeavour. “People outside the academic world who are aware of the amount of effort academicians put into journal articles are sometimes amazed or even outraged to learn that the journals do not pay their contributors anything.” (p 206) The motives involved in those who contribute include “desire for recognition and respect from the people one regards as peers ... desire to have impact ... and desire to participate in significant discourse.” (p 207)
  • Arts in which each artist puts their work out there and therefore is encouraged by comparing their work with others; this is quite similar to the way in which science works.
Therefore an expert-developing environment is one "in which the conditions to which people must adapt change progressively as a result of the successes of other people in the environment.” (p 106) “One adapts to changes that keep raising the ante, by setting a higher standard of performance ... through adapting, one raises the ante for others.” (p 106). Importantly, this implies that one can see the work of others. “The norm is for expertise to be shared.” (p 227) Those who work in isolation, for example teachers in their individual classrooms, will therefore find it more difficult to develop expertise. The development of wikipedia, too late for this book, makes this point: by changing the environment one achieved a cooperative but challenging development of expertise. Perhaps it should be the norm for learners to share the essays they write or to always work on problems on some sort of class wiki.

Experts also challenge themselves. They take risks. “The process of expertise is inherently venturesome.” (p 141)“What distinguishes creative experts from the common herd is ... that they take bigger risks ... and through this experience they develop a kind of knowledge that increases their likelihood of success. This is what we will call knowledge of promisingness.” (p 125) Critique is a good way of developing promisingness, “discovering elements of promise in a composition and helping the student develop those into something.” (p 149) “People on an expert track of development are continually striving against limits of their competence. For beginners, this means striving against the limitations that insufficient prior knowledge places on their ability to learn. For experts, the problems of insufficient prior knowledge never go away, however. The expert track of development keeps rising toward levels of increasing complexity of performance and understanding. This means that present knowledge is always superficial, simplistic, and fragmented relative to the knowledge the expert is trying to achieve.” (p 175)

For experts, goals emerge. "You start out off with a general intent to understand or learn more about something, and as you pick up knowledge it becomes clearer what it is you are trying to understand and what kind of knowledge it is you are constructing.” (p 163 - 164)

Other interesting ideas:
  • Reinvestment involves both conserving resources, so as to have something to reinvest, and putting these resources back into the activity itself rather than dissipating them or directing them elsewhere.” (p 82)
  • Experts learn patterns and this inevitably pushes them towards “deepening a rut that will eventually entrap them.” (p 109) but experts often avoid ruts for a longer than normal time because “tackling new problems has a rejuvenating effect ... old people who have started to shut down and vegetate can change dramatically by getting re-engaged in problem solving ... hormone levels and sperm count rise.” (p 110)
  • There are no experts who lack expert knowledge of their fields.” (p 44) 
  • People go through life trying to accomplish tasks and to understand things, using the existing skills and informal knowledge. From time to time these prove insufficient and people must resort to problem solving that draws on formal knowledge." (p 72)
  • Writers ... talk about how they go about the task of writing - how much revising they do, how they get from a vague notion to an actual draft, how they keep going.” (p 59)
  • The problem is not to explain originality. On close examination, practically everything we do from minute to minute is original. The problem is to explain how some people become expert at, so that they can fairly regularly, almost on demand, produce work that stands out from that of their peers.” (p 122)
  • Problem finding ... is part of virtually all real world problem solving. Real world problems are ...’ill-structured’, which means that one does not know in advance or knows only vaguely what would constitute a solution. In the course of problem solving the goal itself takes shape ... what one is after does not become fully specified until the task is finished. The goal ... emerges from the work itself.” (p 132)
  • Promisingness is the very thing that the student, because of inexperience, is least able to judge.” (p 135)
  • The requirements for developing creative expertise are deceptively simple: ... you must pursue creative goals and you must occasionally succeed ... an unbroken series of failures will not provide you with the knowledge of promisingness required for eventual success. For that reason, coaches or mentors can play a vital role in the early stages of a creative career, because they can start you along promising paths.” (p 147)
  • Students who are all trying hard to be good students may nevertheless be pursuing quite different goals - different notions of what it is to be a good student.” (p 160) 
  • In an expert subculture, the process of expertise is not exceptional. It is what people normally do.” (p 222)
  • We are trying to struggle along with the common law principle that you can do anything you want with what you happen to own or control, subject only to the constraints necessary to protect the rights of others. The potential consequences of actions taken by a giant petrochemical company, for instance, are too vast and long-range to be managed by such a feeble principle. Yet the only recognised alternative, central government planning, has failed so dramatically in Eastern Europe that the very idea survives only in remnants.” (p 223)

This is a beautifully written and thought-provoking book. August 2018; 247 pages

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