Articles Discussed
 .
Carter, M. (1990). The Idea of Expertise: An Exploration of Cognitive and Social Dimensions of Writing. College Composition and Communication, (3), 265. [Read]
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Foertsch, J. (1995). Where Cognitive Psychology Applies: How Theories about Memory and Transfer Can Influence Composition Pedagogy. Written Communication, 12(3), 360–83.
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Meyer, J. H. F., & Land, R. (2005). Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge (2): Epistemological Considerations and a Conceptual Framework for Teaching and Learning. Higher Education, (3), 373. doi:10.2307/25068074 [Read]
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This week, Jenn brought me to her domain, assigning a couple of articles (Carter and Foertsch) that discuss composition theory.  Both authors arrive at a pluralistic model to understand the process that moves a student from novice writer to expert.  Along the way I was able to learn more about the two opposing schools of thought:  1) novices learn by using general knowledge (“universal, fundamental structures of thought and language”) to develop expertise as writers and 2) local knowledge is the key, as knowledge is “constituted by a community and writing is a function of a discourse community.”
Each of these opposing models was expressed in various terms and contains important concepts, outlined in the table below:
 expertsChart

Most interesting to me was the alternative models of how a student moves from novice to expert, which I attempt to summarize below and simplify greatly:

  • General Process Model: Experts, through experience, have developed more effective general strategies than novices.  These general strategies can be tranfered from one domain to another and are thus more powerful than those that derive from local knowledge.
  • Local Knowledge Model: Experience in a domain is the dominant way a novice progresses to become expert in that domain.  General knowledge is not sufficient to advance within a discipline.  (The idea of experience is given a framework within cognitive psychology by Foertsch, as she distinguishes between semantic and episodic memory and their role in solving new problems we encounter.)
  • Pluralistic Model: General and local knowledge fall along a continuum and novices move along that continuum from general to local.  Absent the same knowledge and tools to integrate new knowledge as a disciplinary expert, a novice will rely on general knowledge strategies to acquire local knowledge.  In this manner, the novice acquires more local knowledge and eventually can operate primarily from a local knowledge approach within the domain.

I include the third article (Land and Meyer) to my list this week, because the process of acquiring expertise within a discipline is a central problem that is addressed by the authors — in their case through the use of a framework of threshold concepts.  I provided an overview of threshold concepts in an earlier post, but I think it would be useful to revisit the idea in light of this pluralistic model of expertise.  The central idea of threshold concepts is that there are certain important concepts in all disciplines that are particularly difficult for students to grasp.  Within the models presented by Carter and Foertsch, I would say that these problematic concepts represent ones that cannot be understood using only a general knowledge framework.

In large part this is because another necessary criterion of threshold concepts is that they are particularly troublesome, and often the underlying knowledge is counterintuitive to the uninitiated.  The ugly underside of this aspect of threshold concepts is that they often go unrecognized by experts in the discipline.  Having fully integrated these concepts within their larger disciplinary knowledge base, experts may be blind to the troublesome nature of these threshold concepts and not fully appreciate or even recognize the struggle their students face.

While difficult to move beyond, threshold concepts, once understood, are transformative to students’ understandings and are integrative in the sense that they help provide a more unified and comprehensive understanding of the discipline.  As important and significant mileposts along that disciplinary continuum, threshold concepts may be those anomalies where the accumulation of general knowledge does not provide a sufficient basis to continue their progress in the discipline.  Constructing learning opportunities that infuse a unique local knowledge perspective at these junctures may aid in pushing students along that continuum, happily moving ahead until the next troublesome concept slows them once again.

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2 thoughts on “The Bumpy Road to Expert Status

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