NOTE: This post is Part 3 in my month-long deep dive into exploring "expertise and authority." Get the whole series (as it progresses) here.
"I don't think people who majored in math should be math teachers."
I nodded along when I heard this, for two reasons: The girl saying it happened to be my girlfriend at the time, and I had just bombed the same math test she had.
So you could call it a bit of sour grapes, or blaming the clouds for the rain. But the idea itself did stick with me. Because she had a deeper point to make, which came up as we talked more.
"They spent years learning all of this, and they know it all by heart, and all the tricks and ways to remember it. So they think of it as easy, and they don't realize that we're all just trying to figure it out for the first time."
Have you ever talked to someone who knew, intimately, how to do something you're just trying to learn? Maybe you're not so tech savvy, but you have a cousin who is a computer programmer. Or you don't know how to change the oil (or replace the CV joints) in your car, but your brother-in-law is a mechanic. Or you're just starting out on guitar, but your college buddy is a maestro. There can be a bit of intimidation and discomfort in humbling ourselves before a true expert in a skill. And that can be exacerbated if the expert assumes that "this stuff is easy."
In the previous article I wrote about my deep dive into expertise and authority (Read How to rob a bank with a lemon), I looked at the Dunning-Kruger effect. Essentially, Dunning and Kruger did a study that reveals we are all terrible at assessing our own level of competence in a subject. Most of us grossly overestimate our competence in any given area, even if we test poorly in it. But even more intriguing, those of us who really are knowledgable about a subject or skilled a task tend to underestimate our level of competence and overestimate the competency of others. We mistakenly believe that because it's easy for us, it must be easy for everyone, and therefore we're merely average.
That's interesting. But at first blush it feels inherently opposite to what's been labeled as "the expert blindspot."
According to a 2003 article in American Educational Research Journal, Expert Blindspot Among Preservice Teachers, authors Mitchell J. Nathan and Anthony Petrosino put it this way:
“In this article, we investigate the ‘expert blind spot’ hypothesis—the claim that educators with advanced subject-matter knowledge of a scholarly discipline tend to use the powerful organizing principles, formalisms, and methods of analysis that serve as the foundation of that discipline as guiding principles for the students’ conceptual development and instruction, rather than being guided by knowledge of the learning needs and developmental profiles of novices.”
Phew. But in other words, subject matter experts (SMEs) tend to create a curriculum built on the way their field of study and discipline is organized and constructed, rather than building around the actual learning needs of the students. It's a hazard of being an expert: You tend to underestimate your competency, and overestimate the competency of others. The Dunning-Kruger effect strikes again.
Essentially, this paper is looking at the very concept my girlfriend and I were discussing in our post-math-apocalypse chat. Sometimes, experts aren't that great at teaching what they know.
How teaching works
This isn't really something to become panicky or up-at-arms over. By no means are Professors Nathan and Petrosino suggesting that experts shouldn't be teachers, and neither am I. In fact, expertise in a subject is pretty much essential to being able to teach that subject. At issue here is the way the curriculum is organized.
The problem that my girlfriend and I perceived with math majors becoming math teachers was, essentially, that these guys are complete experts in the field of math, but not necessarily in the field of teaching math. They knew everything they needed to know about quadratic equations and expressions of dividing rational expressions (which I just had to look up), but the framework in which they understand that material isn't established for the novice—the student. And rather than first creating that framework, building the foundation for understanding math, some math majors (or majors in any subjects—not to pick on math majors) assume competency and teach the concepts without preamble.
But education doesn't work that way.
I think it's time for just a smidge of background—
I have a Masters in Education, as well as undergraduate degrees in English Literature and Communication. I also written professionally since I was twelve years old.
I taught both public and private school for a few years, and taught as an Adjunct Professor of Writing for a few more. My expertise is in writing and literature and communication, but also in education itself. I know the "tricks of the trade" for coaxing students into learning. I am, essentially, an authority on pedagogy, as well as on my specific fields of subject-matter expertise.
In other words, I know how to teach, and I know the subject I'm teaching. So I can tell you, from personal experience, that "teaching" and "subject matter expertise" are two very different disciplines and skill sets.
When I taught Developmental Writing in a college environment, I went in knowing—knowing—that I had this. To that point I'd been both an educator and a writer for years. I knew my field, and I knew how to teach. But I wasn't prepared for the challenges of teaching everything I know about writing to a group of bright but untrained and undisciplined students who lacked even basic knowledge of grammar or mechanics.
My first few classes went right over their heads.
In other words, now it was me, the expert in writing and pedagogy, who wasn't teaching according to the learning needs of the students. I was the math major teaching math. Metaphorically. I stink at math.
But I had a job to do, students to reach, and writing to teach! So I regrouped. I looked at where the students were, what basics they were missing, and I started from there. And so I found myself, at the college level, teaching the same basic grammar skills as would be taught to students in a 1st grade classroom. "A noun is a person, place or thing." "Capitalize the first letter of your first and last name, always." "A sentence contains a subject and a verb."
I was hired to teach these kids to write better essays at the college level, but their learning needs required me to step back and start from something far more foundational. So in addition to addressing their individual learning styles and modalities, I had to get them thinking in terms of what writing is at it's most primary level.
My expertise could have gotten in the way. It did, actually, when I first started. And so I had to change my thinking and come at this with a "beginner's mind." I had to re-examine my own expertise and start from the beginning. And that's challenging for an expert. It can be as difficult as being a complete novice in something yourself.
Which, at that point, you are.
Experts may be novices at sharing their expertise
I brought up "beginner's mind" a couple of sentences ago. In Zen Buddhism, this is the core concept known as "shoshin." Wikipedia defines it this way:
It refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner in that subject would.
I'm no Buddhist, but I recognize wisdom when I see it. The ability to come at a problem with the mind of a beginner can give you a lot of advantages. You bring enthusiasm, curiosity, and intuition into the mix. Stepping away from your expertise for a moment can give you a new perspective on something that you may not have noticed before.
That, in a nutshell, is how I understand the "expert blindspot."
In a way, experts are a bit jaded. We know our subject so well, it's all completely mundane to us. It's an instinct. A habit. It's automatic.
Think about your drive to work, or doing a routine chore around the house. You often go on autopilot, and let your subconscious do the heavy mental lifting. You don't think about what it takes to climb into a car, start the engine, engage the transmission, apply just the right pressure first to the brake, then to the accelerator. You don't think about the nuances of using the steering wheel or the blinker or the horn ("Get outta the way, I'm trying to get to work!").
But slow down and teach that to someone else, and what happens?
Sometimes, we get irritated. We know this so well, why don't you? This is easy! Why can't you get it? The left pedal is the brake, and the right pedal is the gas! Sheesh!
Special note: I literally had to act out using the brake and accelerator pedals to write the previous sentence.
And that's the point. The knowledge is so automatic to us, it becomes difficult to have to slow down and teach it as a process to someone else. We might know this by heart, to the point that our knowledge and skill come automatically, but when it comes time to articulate it to someone else we become novices ourselves. We're slower. We're frustrated. Our brains are running on sludge, and it makes our inner monkey mad.
Working around your expert blindspot
Working around this blindspot means taking a breath and calmly approaching the topic from the ground up. It means learning and mastering a new skill. Sometimes the only way to do that is to spend a lot of time on it, trying again and again. Another method is to seek out experts on that skill and have them teach it to you. It is, after all, learnable.
The upside of the expertise blindspot is that, in addressing it, we become better authorities. Once we're able to better convey and articulate what we know about our field of discipline, we will be more readily recognized by others as an authority in that field. We teach, therefore we are teachers.
And that, I think, is at the heart of this month-long exploration into expertise and authority. It's emerging, slowly, that there is a difference.
Being an authority means knowing your stuff, having the practical knowledge and experience to quickly analyze data and assess whether it fits into the paradigm of your expertise.
Being an expert, on the other hand, means that you are capable of clearly conveying that knowledge and experience to others, and you are recognized and acknowledged and even sought out for doing so.
You know a problem and you can offer a solution.
Does this negate my pervious definition? I don't believe it does, actually. Because again, this is still a conversation about relative concepts. We're still lacking a definitive criteria for measuring or judging or determining expertise and authority. We lack a criteria that doesn't depend entirely on the perceptions and/or assertions of both you and others. You're still an expert if someone says you're an expert. You're still an authority if you know more about a subject than everyone else.
Now the trick seems to be, "Know your competency, and know your blindspot." You can be a better expert and a better authority, if you're more self aware, and if you can think more like a novice.
The deep dive continues
I'm continuing to dig in on this topic, and I'm still very interested in hearing what you have to say on it. So feel free to comment on this post, or visit my website at kevintumlinson.com to send me an email. Or even better, call me at 281-809-WORD (9673) and leave me a voicemail. I may even play it on the Wordslinger Podcast, and answer any questions you may have.
Because we, my friend, are exploring this topic together.