Published on 2012/06/06

Elements of Expertise: Connecting the Dots . . . .

—Co-written with Tom Mucciolo | President, MediaNet

By narrowing down or eliminating in-class problems, educators are inhibiting the growth of their own expertise. It's important to see the big picture. Image supplied by MediaNet.

As colleagues at NYU, we collaborate on topics related to teaching effectiveness. Our research led to the design of our skills assessment tools and to the book A Guide to Better Teaching, which focuses on the skills of effective teachers as identified from learner preferences.(1) One of the most desired skills preferred in teachers is that of expertise, which can be briefly defined as the ability to logically explain or simplify the content.

From a broad perspective, the literature defines expertise in a variety ways and it appears that the characteristics of experts revolve around the dynamic relationship among the core elements of knowledge, experience, problem-solving, talent, and context.(2-9)

For the purpose of this article, we will focus on one of these core elements, namely, the problem-solving ability that allows an instructor to “connect the dots” by helping learners see the relationships among what otherwise might be isolated bits of knowledge.(10)

Part of the expertise of an instructor is to provide learners with clear explanations of the concepts, theories, facts, figures, ideas, and other information associated with a given topic. Yet, the complexity of content poses a problem for students, especially if the topic is filled with collections of seemingly random facts or details.

Whereas learners attend multiple courses in a given program or curriculum, they may lack the ability to make connections across related topics. Imagine that each fragment of information learned within a specific topic is similar to a puzzle piece. It takes an instructor’s expertise to recognize patterns and solve the dilemma of putting the entire puzzle together for learners to see the “bigger picture”. Therefore, it is important that you develop your expertise in a subject area to the point that you see how content relates to practical experience.

Your overall educational perspective is peppered with a variety of experiences that have helped you develop a more focused understanding of how the taught subject matter fits into the real world. When you explain relationships among seemingly ambiguous points, you enlighten learners and allow them to think more creatively. In fact, the use of real-world analogies helps students understand the deeper meaning of what you are teaching by linking content to context.

Are You Routine or Adaptive?

At times, you may avoid making logical connections, because you lack the in-depth knowledge to see the bigger picture. After all, why open up a new can of worms with new discussions, new problems, or new arguments? In that regard, rather than problem-solving, some teachers choose problem dis-solving. In other words, by continually employing the same routines, an effort is made to minimize classroom challenges as a way of improving the efficiency at teaching.

Routine expertise is associated with experienced non-experts who have developed a set of everyday habits to combat recurring problems by fitting each dilemma into the most comfortable solution.(7) Why not? It would appear that a problem-free environment makes for optimal teaching. But by narrowing down or eliminating problems, you inhibit the growth of your expertise as you focus on only your strongest skills. In fact, as problems arise, you may find yourself just using one approach simply because you have perfected the strategy.

However, adaptive experts are those who embrace new problems as new learning experiences in order to expand expertise to new levels.(7) The presence of a new obstacle requires alertness, attention, and focus on dealing with the unexpected. Such adaptive expertise is more of a continuum or process, rather than a static or achieved skill.

The more flexible you are in the learning environment, the more likely you will try “new” things, and while some of these fresh approaches may lead to novel problems; you will find innovative ways to address those issues, thus expanding your database of solutions.

For example, suppose you are considering adding some video clips into your slide presentation to support a lecture. If you are unfamiliar with how to handle any technical problems that may arise, your routine will be better served if you don’t include the clips. Problem dis–solved. However, if you opt to include the clips, even if a technical glitch occurs, your struggle with the new problem will become a learning lesson and your expertise will adapt accordingly. Problem solved.

NOTE: This article is adapted from the book: A Guide to Better Teaching: Skills, Advice, and Evaluation for College and University Professors, by Leila Jahangiri and Tom Mucciolo. (Rowman & Littlefield, Publishers, Inc). ©2012 by Leila Jahangiri & Tom Mucciolo. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.

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1. Jahangiri L, Mucciolo TW. Characteristics of effective classroom teachers as identified by students and professionals: A qualitative study. Journal of Dental Education 2008:72(4):484–93.

2. Berliner DC. Learning about and learning from expert teachers. International Journal of Educational Research 2001:35(5):463–82.

3. Bereiter C, Scardamalia M. Surpassing ourselves: An inquiry into the nature and implications of expertise. Chicago: Open Court Publishing Co., 1993.

4. Borko H, Livingston C. Cognition and improvisation: Differences in mathematics instruction by expert and novice teachers. American Educational Research Journal 1989:26(4):473–98.

5. Ericsson K, Charness N, Feltovich P, Hoffman R. The Cambridge handbook of expertise and expert performance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

6. Ericsson KA, Charness N. Expert performance. American Psychologist 1994:49(8):725–47.

7. Mylopoulos M, Regehr G. Cognitive metaphors of expertise and knowledge: prospects and limitations for medical education. Medical Education 2007:41(12):1159–65.

8. Sternberg RJ. Abilities are forms of developing expertise. Educational Researcher 1998:27(3):11.

9. Westerman DA. Expert and novice teacher decision making. Journal of Teacher Education 1991:42(4):292–305.

10. Hendricson WD, Andrieu SC, Chadwick DG, Chmar JE, Cole JR, George MC, Glickman GN, Glover JF, Goldberg JS, Haden NK. Educational strategies associated with development of problem-solving, critical thinking, and self-directed learning. Journal of Dental Education 2006:70(9):925.

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