The concept of “novices and experts” answered a lot of questions for me. For a long time, I had been finding it difficult to understand why my students made simple mistakes, couldn’t “apply” their learning to new areas and couldn’t understand exactly what a given verbal or written question was asking for.
Put simply, the idea is that when a learner is first starting out in a particular domain (e.g. chemistry), they are considered a novice. Their knowledge is fragmented and disconnected from the rest of the knowledge within the domain. As their knowledge builds up, they progress towards becoming an expert: someone whose knowledge is broad, deep and extensively connected.
There are a number of classic lab-based experiments in this field, the findings of which are summarised here as:
- Experts notice features and meaningful patterns of information that are not noticed by novices.
- Experts have acquired a great deal of content knowledge that is organized in ways that reflect a deep understanding of their subject matter.
- Experts’ knowledge cannot be reduced to sets of isolated facts or propositions but, instead, reflects contexts of applicability: that is, the knowledge is “conditionalized” on a set of circumstances.
- Experts are able to flexibly retrieve important aspects of their knowledge with little attentional effort.
- Though experts know their disciplines thoroughly, this does not guarantee that they are able to teach others.
- Experts have varying levels of flexibility in their approach to new situations.
These findings explain much and each is worthy of its own blog post (I have written about expert blindness here and the differences between novice and expert teachers here). Here, I want to focus on a specific aspect discussed by Paul Kirschner in a 2009 article discussing the different positions of the novice and the expert with respect to the domain.
Let us imagine that the circle below encapsulates all the knowledge contained within a given domain:
Within the domain are all the procedures and propositions which constitute the knowledge of that domain. So for example if the domain in question was “chemistry,” within the circle would be knowledge of atoms and elements, how to balance an equation, homologous series and many more items.
Within the domain, these items can be thought of as interconnected nodes – little chunks of knowledge which all relate to each other and build up to a cohesive whole*:
The model is obviously an oversimplification. In an ideal world we would think of the domain as a sphere, with items connecting hierarchically or laterally and sometimes relating to whole other domains. Either way, we can think of a novice as someone in the middle of the domain, someone whose knowledge is partial and fragmented. The orange nodes and connections represent how much of the domain a novice might have mastered:
The expert has mastered the nodes within the domain and their connections and the edges of the domain become their living quarters. The expert has mastered all the knowledge up until that point and has drawn strong connections between the nodes.
Our task as teachers is to move students from being novices to being experts. But the only way for them to progress on that journey is through the slow and steady acquisition of new knowledge. This means that with respect to the domain, the role of the novice is to master its contents. However, the expert has already achieved this role – they have mastered the contents of the domain. Kirschner argues that the role of the expert is now to increase the size of the domain, to add new knowledge to it:
When experts add knowledge to the domain, they employ the domain’s epistemology. This refers to the rules which govern how knowledge can be admitted to the domain. For example, in science knowledge is generally added to the domain by “the scientific method.” Though of course there are within-domain debates about what exactly constitutes the scientific method, most would agree that it involves a process of experimental inquiry: using experiments to test hypotheses. Within that the epistemology also governs what constitutes a valid experiment: is it controlled properly? Is the hypothesis refutable? Can the finding be corroborated by other scientists?
Novices, on the other hand, are not involved in generating new knowledge. Though they may of course learn about the epistemology of the domain, they are not equal partners in using it to add to the domain. Instead, they are slowly learning the basics of the domain, it constituent nodes and connections between them.
This is not the realm of epistemology, but pedagogy. The question is “how can this learner gather and assimilate the knowledge contained within the domain?”
The question of how to teach knowledge to novices best is an extensive one. Broadly, we are looking at techniques like carefully scaffold explanations, worked examples, guided examples, opportunities to practise, meaningful feedback and opportunities to revisit old material. But note that these methods are not the same as the ones that the expert is using. The expert is generating knowledge through inquiry; the novice is acquiring knowledge through an explicit pedagogy.
It is fairly common in the science community to argue that novices should be taught through inquiry – to emulate the activities of experts (see, for example, page 23 here). However, this is to make a category error. Novices are not experts; their cognitive architectures are worlds apart.
What does this look like in English?
A common misconception of English Language, and to a lesser degree English Literature, is that they are ‘skills-based’ subjects. The difference between knowledge and skills is undeniably complex – if you don’t agree, then try to define a skill without including the necessity for pre-existing knowledge of the world. David Didau covers this here . It is our knowledge of the world, our pre-existing cultural capital and our understanding of existing structures which allow us to perform well in English. Teaching ‘skills’ without the teaching the knowledge that underpins these skills will inevitably lead to underachievement.
The concept of novices and experts applies to English-related subjects in the same way it does to other domains. When a novice reads a Shakespeare play for the first time, scaffolded explanations, translations to contemporary English and modelled responses for analysis are needed as a starting point. When an expert reads a Shakespeare play for the first time, s/he will draw on existing knowledge of literary theory and approaches, and known social and historical contextual information among many others. A knowledge of the Classics may be utilised – allusions to Greek myths, for example, will enable an expert to access a depth of understanding of characters and events that would not be immediately known to the novice. This applies to language too. For example, one’s analysis of ‘fair is foul, and foul is fair’ in the opening to Macbeth will transcend the word, sentence and whole-play level if one has a strong working knowledge of Sophocles, in whose play ‘Antigone’ (441 BC) this line originally appears. A novice cannot draw on this; the immediate access to such understanding is missing. Extensive reading – and we’re talking about the study of texts spanning centuries – is how experts in English have built a cohesive domain of interconnected nodes.
As Didau outlines in his blog, this also applies to English Language. Novices, who lack cultural capital and knowledge of the world, will struggle to make inferences when reading and will lack knowledge of the world to apply to their writing. Such elements need to be explicitly taught.
What does this look like in Geography?
Expert geographers create new knowledge through enquiry. They might investigate the impacts that colonialism has on Haiti today, the causes of an increased flood risk in an area or the role of lichen as an indicator of air quality. To enquire in this way involves setting questions to answer, collecting the data to answer it and then analysing that data to reach conclusions. The reason they are able to do these things is the deep well of knowledge they have about their subject. Without this well to tap it is impossible to set the enquiry as they can’t phrase a meaningful question, they don’t know how to collect the data and they can’t run the analysis.
Novices, our pupils, are building this base level of knowledge that will allow them to enquire about the world. We teach them about the findings of others: on impact of colonialism on development, the factors affecting flood risk and indicators of air quality, in the hope that they will then be able to add to this body of knowledge themselves in the future.
Although in this early stage they can’t run an enquiry themselves, we can, and should, guide them through the process of enquiry as a way of building knowledge. In this way they learn the important procedural knowledge involved in the subject and the ability to apply their expertise once they have developed it.
Indeed, the final stage of their school education at the end of Year 13 is to produce their own, almost entirely unguided, investigation. At this point of their education they have built enough base knowledge to start creating knowledge of their own. They aren’t playing at being geographers from the darkness of ignorance but have finally emerged as one blinking into the light.
A huge thank you to Sarah and Mark for sharing here. If you would like to add how novices, experts, epistemology and pedagogy applies to your subject I would love to hear from you.