Teaching

The double-edged sword of expertise

“When it comes to teaching, expertise is a double-edged sword.”

I could be quoted as making that statement dozens of times over the course of my career in faculty professional development. Why? Because one of the biggest challenges we face as teachers is the expert’s blind spot. Put simply, the expert’s blind spot is the expert’s inability to see things from a novice point of view. This leads experts to do the following:

  • Over-estimate what novices know and can do
  • Under-estimate how long novices will take to complete tasks
  • Fail to see the steps novices must learn
  • Mis-predict where novices will have difficulty
  • Presume that novices do things the way they (experts) do

The above results have been documented in various research studies (Hinds, 1999; Nathan & Koedinger, 2000; Nickerson, 1999). It all makes sense, right? If you’ve been doing X for 10 years (let X = a domain of activity where you’ve achieved some level of expertise – be it physics, art history, violin, rock climbing, whatever), you probably can’t remember what it was like to “do X” for the first time: What made it difficult? Where did you slip up? How hard did you have to concentrate to have any hope of success? Moreover, when you do X now, you are likely engaging a very different process compared to when you first did X, thanks to learning mechanisms like chunking and proceduralization that change the very structure of your knowledge and skills. Let me set up a typical novice/expert contrast: Originally to do X, you probably had to explicitly recall relevant concepts and ideas while you focused on when and how to take particular actions, step by step. By contrast, now when you do X, it may seem that you just “do what it takes” or that ideas and patterns just “pop out” without much effort (especially when you face a task that formerly would have been challenging but now is easy).

This transition to a more automatic – or seemingly unconscious – process is a great advantage for experts. To be their most accurate, fluent and creative, experts have to be able to rise above thinking through each individual step and fact. And yet, not being aware of those steps and facts (i.e., expert’s blind spot) can be a problem when experts are the ones trying to teach novices…

My experience teaching the expert’s blind spot

Over all the times I’ve given talks or workshops that involve expert’s blind spot (I’d say, more than 30 over the past 10 years), there is one example I always use to illustrate the point: driving. When you’re an experienced driver, you don’t have to think about the many critical moves you make; you just do what you have to do… without necessarily being aware of what you’re doing. The idea that this would make it harder to teach someone to drive really resonates with audiences.

Typically, I continue the workshop by asking participants to imagine teaching a novice how to drive: What key steps might you take for granted that a novice wouldn’t even know to ask about? Which rules of the road could you forget to mention because you invoke them so automatically in the appropriate situations? How would you describe to a novice what your hands or feet just know – what “feels right” – when turning the wheel, pressing the brake, or releasing the clutch?

Now ten years ago, this hypothetical exercise of teaching a novice to drive was just that for me… hypothetical. But then, a few months ago, the abstract scenario of teaching someone to drive became a reality when it was time to teach my own son how to drive. He was just a kid when I started doing faculty development, but then suddenly he turned 16. (Did I say “suddenly”? Sometimes it feels that way!)

To be fair, this reality hit my husband first. He is the designated teach-all-those-important-skills-that-could-lead-to-skinned-knees-or-worse parent in our family (think: riding a bike, rollerblading, whittling sticks). Correspondingly, I am the observe-and-cheer-from-a-distance-so-nobody-can-tell-I’m-holding-my-breath-the-whole-time parent. It’s a good division of labor. Trust me.

And yet, it turns out that (a) we have a 1992 Honda Civic with manual transmission that we’ve been hanging on to (at least, in part) so that our son could learn “stick shift” on it, (b) I was (at least, in part) responsible for teaching my husband to drive stick in that very car on a road trip where the Pennsylvania Turnpike strangely turned into a parking lot (for three-plus hours! …but that’s another story), and (c) I actually have a bit of pride in my ability to navigate the hilly topography of Pittsburgh in our sweet, little Honda. So I became the self-nominated teacher of stick-shift driving.

Now, given my vast experience leading discussions on the expert’s blind spot and how that plays out in teaching someone how to drive, I’m sure you’ll agree that I was completely prepared for the situation I had put myself in. Riiiight…

Well, let’s put it this way: I’ve learned a few new things about addressing the expert’s blind spot thanks to my recent experience, so I thought I’d share them with you. Note: the strategies listed below are in addition to my old stand-by strategies on expert’s blind spot. To be inclusive, I’ll put three of those oldies-but-goodies at the start of this list – as strategies A, B, C given they are kind of “the basics”. Then I’ll append my new strategies below, numbered 1-5.

Basic strategies for addressing the expert’s blind spots in one’s teaching

  1. Actually perform the task you’re expert at, and reflect on your process. (Note: This strategy implies that you have a specific task on hand to perform. Easy option: take an assignment you would give your students and actually work through it yourself, from start to finish. That can be a useful eye-opener in and of itself.) As you perform the task, ask yourself questions like: What am I doing first, second, etc.? What aspects of the task am I focusing on? What ideas/approaches/strategies am I considering (or rejecting)? Why?
  2. Think about where students tend to have difficulty. If you’ve taught in this area before, it can be helpful to review previous assignments or exams and try to remember the questions or topics where students’ performance was low. Or when students visited you in office hours, were there patterns to their questions? In addition, you can always ask an experienced colleague these questions, or you can look to the research literature on teaching in your discipline. In many fields, articles on “common misconceptions” or “teaching tricky topics” provide an inventory of possibilities that might affect your students. Note: here’s an area where edtech can help. If past students worked through some online instruction on the target topic, you may be able to download the data from their online learning and analyze it to find the questions or aspects of performance where they showed the greatest difficulty.
  3. Make a list of the skills you identified in strategies A & B and use it. This strategy is kind of the clincher for the two above it. If you can make a list of all the components of expertise that you take for granted, you can use your full attention to analyze and work with that list. In other words, the key to this strategy is turning your list into action – using it to guide your instructional design. I’m sure you’ll find many ways to use your list, but here are a few ideas for starters: (i) Review the list to check which of the items are already in your course design and which are “hidden skills” that need to be added. (ii) Identify which items on the list are priorities – skills where your students will really benefit from practice and where you are willing to spend the time it takes for students to gain mastery. (iii) Develop activities to provide students with practice and feedback on the prioritized skills.

So, that lays out three basic strategies I’ve found useful over the years in helping faculty address their expert’s blind spot. Below are strategies I newly learned from actually facing my own expert’s blind spot and teaching my son to drive.

Newfound strategies I recently learned for addressing the expert’s blind spot

  1. Be on the lookout for what gives your students trouble – not just where you expect them to have trouble. Note: This strategy is actually an important addendum to strategy B above. When I approached teaching my son to drive stick, I did my best to engage strategies A, B, and C. Naturally, I expected he’d have difficulty where stalling is most frequent: getting the car moving from a stopped position and slowing down to a stop. So I was focused on these known “tricky” areas and was rather unprepared when general accelerating was also quite difficult. In hindsight, I could have been more open to look for difficult areas on my initial analysis rather than fall into a bit of confirmation bias.

    So, what happened in the moment when we – my son and I – discovered the surprising difficulty of accelerating? Well, we each did some reflecting and took stock of the unexpected challenge. I engaged in a mental simulation of what I do to accelerate smoothly (and even stepped into the driver’s seat for a bit to “experience” what I was tacitly doing, so I could articulate it better). And my son shared his a priori expectations about the relative difficulty of braking vs. accelerating. ‘Turns out, he had thought in advance about possible difficulties just like I had, and his pre-conception was that braking would be trickier than accelerating, so he was putting much more attention on learning to brake . With his re-balanced focus on braking and accelerating, and my extra tips on how to accelerate smoothly, we ended up managing this difficulty just fine.

  2. Be on the lookout for where your students have unexpected ease. This new strategy was a revelation for me because I had always emphasized the expert’s tendency to over-estimate what a novice can do and hence to miss areas where novices have difficulty. So as I was teaching my son to drive stick, I was dutifully focused on giving him lots of practice on the most difficult skill – transitioning from 0 to 10 mph in first gear: Start, go straight a few yards (assuming we didn’t stall), and then stop so you can do it again. Start…stop. Start…stop. No second gear, no steering complexities, nothing else but Start…stop. And then, we got to the end of the parking lot.

    Now, this was a very narrow parking lot and, as you’ll recall, the car we were in is a 1992 Honda Civic (this baby has no power steering), so rather than have my son continue forward, curving around to make a loop, I suggested that he should back up, straight to where we started. I showed him the reverse gear (to the far right and down), and then I told him to do just what he had done with first gear, except for looking out the rear window instead of the front. (I’m pretty sure he figured out that last part on his own.) Miraculously, he did every single reverse start-stop without anything close to a stall (not even a lurch). Woohoo! Had he suddenly mastered the art of manual transmission? Sadly no, but we both discovered something almost as great: Reverse is a lot more forgiving than first, and that’s very useful to know when you’re teaching/learning to drive stick. We took our time feeling out what was working for him in the reverse gear (and savoring the positive experiences of success). Only then did we apply it all – e.g., his better sense of the clutch’s “sweet spot” and his newfound confidence – to tackle the dreaded first gear again. It made a huge difference! And this new strategy was born: finding something that is surprisingly easy for your students can turn into a great scaffolded learning activity.

  3. Bear in mind that students may want to do the “whole task” and that’s ok. This strategy is admittedly something I already knew before teaching my son to drive, but experiencing it first hand led me to realize it deserves an explicit reminder. Why do we need to remember students’ desire to engage in the “whole task” in the context of expert’s blind spot? Mostly because the other strategies for addressing expert blind spot involve an in-depth focus on the components of expertise. So we may naturally emphasize instructional design activities at that finer grain size. (Think: my incessant start…stop practice in first and reverse gears. I was decidedly not giving my son practice in the whole task of driving stick.) In other words, this strategy simply reminds us to acknowledge that the whole task also has value. Where possible (and ideally at regular intervals), we should incorporate whole task practice into our isolated, component-by-component practice. Performing the whole task can be motivating for students and can highlight their strengths and weaknesses (that can, in turn, inform our teaching).

    Also, here’s some hindsight’s 20/20 advice for you all: Before launching into a long segment of fine-grained, isolated skill practice, it’s probably a good idea to set the larger context and explain your rationale (“Yes, honey, I’m a cognitive psychologist, so practicing this painful start-stop exercise 100 times in this boring parking lot is good for your acquisition of component skills and, in turn, your eventual development of mastery. Trust me. Oh, and don’t worry; you’ll probably be ready for second gear soon… at least by next year!”) Ok. I’m still working on this strategy…

  4. Have fun revealing your expert’s blind spot by savoring your expertise. In teaching my son to drive stick, I realized that taking the time to notice what I do as I drive was an interesting exercise and actually quite fun. I’d liken it to the practice of mindfulness, where you try to fully experience each moment – your sensations, what you’re paying attention to, what you’re doing, etc. For example, the other day I read that practicing mindfulness can make even the mundane interesting. (I kid you not: the author was advocating for readers to try mindfully washing dishes.) So, if mindfulness can make dishwashing interesting, just think what it can do for the tasks you’re an expert at. Another way I like to think of this strategy is that it offsets the difficulty of unpacking your expertise by giving you a reason to step back and be impressed by your own expertise and what you know how to do so well.

  5. Use your expert’s blind spot to discover something new. Similar to the strategy above, this one emphasizes the additional, personal value you can get from working to address your expert’s blind spot. This strategy provides an intellectual sense of pleasure – the kind you get from satisfying a deep curiosity or figuring out how something works. It came up in my teaching stick shift scenario as I was introspecting on my mental model for how the clutch and gear system works. Thinking about how I drive and how my son was driving (e.g., the surprisingly forgiving reverse gear), forced me to push the limits of my mental model. Before this teaching opportunity came along, I had gotten by with a basic understanding of how the system worked, but I had never before thought about why the reverse gear would be more forgiving than first… or what was involved to take the engine’s rotation into the reverse direction. I had just considered reverse as loosely analogous to first – and my thinking stopped there. So it was fun – in the intellectually interesting and challenging sense – to think through some implications that had never occurred to me before. I take this strategy as giving experts extra motivation to take on the challenge of revealing their blind spots because doing so can potentially create opportunities for them to further deepen their own expertise.

Epilogue

Throughout the course of writing this post, I had to ask myself: Do I have an expert’s blind spot on the expert’s blind spot? (Ok, I have a thing for going “meta”.) I must admit that the answer to that question is probably yes. But the good news is, by writing this post, I have taken some steps (especially by engagin in strategies 1, 4, and 5 above) to reduce it. So, I now look forward to the next time I will give a talk on the expert’s blind spot and get a chance to apply all of the above strategies further.

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