Teaching Today's Students

Teaching Students to Think like Experts

2377889055_6d4c98d59f_qby Kelly McEnerny, Graduate Assistant, Reinert Center 

An expert guitarist might hear Tom Petty’s “Free Falling” and be able to discern patterns related to a chromatic scale and relate those patterns to other songs – I recently learned from a colleague and professional musician that The Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie” shares the same pattern as “Free Falling.”  A novice would likely not recognize these patterns, much less be able to identify common patterns across songs. Indeed, experts differ from novices in several specific ways. According to Bransford, Brown, and Cocking (2000), authors of “How People Learn,” experts are sensitive to patterns within their domains of expertise; they know the core concepts, or big ideas, that link together seemingly disparate facts and skills. They have well organized knowledge structures that enable them to address problems efficiently, as well as flexibly. More importantly, they remain students of their disciplines, pushing the limits of their knowledge and tackling essential questions that speak to big ideas.

The notion that experts perceive and approach their disciplines differently from novices has pedagogical implications. Whereas seasoned scholars tend to operate within the realm of big ideas, readily noticing themes and contradictions, novice students often remain at a superficial level, attempting to memorize facts, oblivious to the existence of a larger context. In essence, instructors may not always be aware of these differences. Indeed, Bloom’s foundational taxonomy suggests several different levels of understanding of which teachers might easily take for granted and of which students are often unaware.  Drs. Nordell and de Foy from Saint Louis University recently conducted a teaching seminar on “Promoting Higher Order Thinking” during which they described a common scenario in which students “miss the forest for the trees;” they fail to recognize the big ideas, concepts, or patterns.

Bransford, Brown, and Cocking (2000) describe big ideas as subtle and often counterintuitive, and offer suggestions for helping students to recognize them. This process often involves predicting and then addressing students’ misconceptions. Making students aware of big ideas can scaffold their thinking, encouraging them to begin to operate at higher levels of understanding. By introducing students to big ideas, teachers help students to develop a cognitive framework for integrating new knowledge.  They do so by making connections for students and then gradually encouraging students to make connections on their own.

Posing certain questions can also help students integrate information into a more encompassing framework, enabling them to develop conditionalized knowledge (another feature of expertise). These questions involve asking students to think about concepts in terms of “when,” “where,” and “why.” These types of questions require students to elaborate on concepts, a process that helps them to develop broader and richer conceptual understandings.  Conditionalized knowledge allows experts to readily retrieve relevant information without having to laboriously section through everything they know.

Above all, experts are flexible and open to new ideas. They view themselves as “experienced novices” and view knowledge as constructed. Moreover, they engage in metacognition, or thinking about thinking, which allows them to evaluate their learning and recognize “blind spots.”  Bransford, Brown, and Cocking (2000), suggest communicating to students that knowledge is not concrete and that experts do not have all the answers. They recommend helping students learn to evaluate their own thinking and learning, emphasizing the importance of questioning for life-long learning.

Photo courtesy of Flickr.