Expertise and Instruction
Last updated on 2023-10-26 | Edit this page
Estimated time: 45 minutes
- Does subject expertise make someone a great teacher?
- How are we (as Instructors) different from our learners and how does this impact our teaching?
- Explain what differentiates an expert from a competent practitioner.
- Describe at least two examples of how expertise can help and hinder effective teaching.
- Identify strategies for becoming aware of your expert awareness gap.
- Demonstrate strategies for avoiding dismissive language.
In the last episode, we discussed the transition from novice to competent practitioner through formation of a functional mental model. We now shift our attention to experts. The expert we want to talk about is you!
Even if you do not yet think of yourself as an expert, you may nonetheless have advanced to the point where some of these key characteristics – and potential pitfalls – apply to you. We will discuss what distinguishes expertise from novices/competent practitioners, how being an expert can make it more difficult to teach novices, and some tools to help instructors identify and overcome these difficulties.
An earlier topic described a key difference between novices and competent practitioners. Novices lack a mental model, or have only a very incomplete model with limited utility. Competent practitioners have mental models that work well enough for most situations. How are experts different from both of these groups?
In reviewing the answers to the question above you will find that the expert experience amounts to much more than just knowing more facts. Competent practitioners can memorize a lot of information without any noticeable improvement to their performance. So, what makes an expert? The answer is that experts have more connections among pieces of knowledge that help them think and problem-solve quickly; more “short-cuts”, if you will.
This brings us back to our mental model diagrams, where facts are nodes and relationships are arcs. The greater connectivity of a mental model allows experts to:
- see connections between two topics or ideas that no one else can see
- see a single problem in several different ways
- know how to solve a problem, or “what questions to ask”
- jump directly from a problem to its solution because there is a direct link between the two in their mind. Where a competent practitioner would have to reason “A therefore B therefore C therefore F”, the expert can go from A to F in a single step (“A therefore F”).
We will expand on some of these below and how they can manifest in the way you teach.
Because your learners’ mental models will likely be less densely connected than your own, a conclusion that seems obvious to you will not seem that way to your learners. It is important to explain what you are doing step-by-step, and how each step leads to the next one.
The problem with this is that when you are used to going from A to F in a single leap, it can be very hard to remember that novices need to go through steps B and C before they can understand the connection between A and F. Experts are frequently so familiar with their subject that they can no longer imagine what it is like to not understand the world that way. This phenomenon is known in the literature as an expert blind spot.
In The Carpentries, we aim to create an inclusive environment. We prefer to refer to this phenomenon as the expert awareness gap to be consistent with our objective to use inclusive language. It can be exclusionary to use a term that relates to a disability for other purposes. We introduce both terms, however, to help you as future instructors engage with these ideas in the literature and with people outside of The Carpentries community.
In evaluating potential terms, one instructor provided the following thoughts:
I like expert awareness gap because it is more precise than blind spot (it is not about seeing, but about noticing) and feels more of a surmountable challenge than a disadvantage. To me a disadvantage can sometimes feel like a thing that exists as a fact, like an inevitable consequence, but a gap is a thing to be bridged– and we certainly want instructors to try to overcome (or mitigate) their expert awareness gap
Awareness gaps can lead to some interesting reversals in the classroom. While deep expertise in a subject area can be valuable when teaching, it can also create obstacles that must be overcome with practice. People with less expertise, who still remember what it is like to have to learn the things, can be better equipped to anticipate novice misconceptions compared with an expert who has not learned to identify their awareness gaps.
What does this mean for you? If you have deep expertise in the subject you are hoping to teach, listen carefully to your learners, and seek out less-expert colleagues to discuss your teaching plans. If, on the other hand, you still feel new to your subject area – perhaps you even feel a little tentative about whether you are “expert enough” to teach – take heart! Your explanations may be more likely to meet novice learners where they are.
- Is there anything you are learning how to do right now? Can you identify something that you still need to think about, but your teacher can do without thinking about it?
- Think about the area of expertise you identified for yourself earlier. What could a potential awareness gap be?
This exercise should take about 5 minutes.
If you worked in the USA in the same building as something called a “delicatessen”, you might invite a friend to meet you at “the deli” or simply at “the restaurant” and expect them to know what you mean, because you naturally use these terms interchangeably. Yet, someone less familiar with US English might hesitate, wondering if these words mean the same thing, or close enough, under the circumstances. Similarly, in a Carpentries workshop, an Instructor may start a workshop talking about “Unix”, but then automatically start using words like “Bash” and “shell” without noticing that learners are struggling to figure out how these two new words are related.
Novice learners can be confused by interchangeable use of more than just vocabulary. In programming, multiple forms of notation may be used to reference a column in a data frame, for example, with the same effect. Instructors may use absolute file paths in one place, then default to relative file paths elsewhere without noticing that explanation is required. Or, they may assume that a learner who has an absolute file path will be able to navigate to the file in a GUI.
In the Etherpad, share an example of words or notation that you sometimes use to accomplish or refer to the same thing. If possible, try to think of an example that might occur in a Carpentries workshop.
Building awareness of how you can represent the same concept in multiple different ways will help you avoid doing so without explanation while teaching.
This exercise should take about 5 minutes.
Experts are also better at diagnosing errors than novices or competent practitioners. If faced with an error message while teaching, an expert will often automatically diagnose and solve a problem before a novice has even finished reading the error message. Because of this, it is very important while teaching to be explicit about the process you are using to engage with errors, even if they seem trivial to you, as they often will.
What is an error message that you encounter frequently in your work? (These are often syntax errors.) Take a few minutes to plan out how you would explain that error message to your learners. Write the error and your explanation in the Etherpad.
This discussion should take about 5 minutes. (Optionally, this may be discussed in group breakouts, adding 5 minutes.)
Instructors want to motivate learners! We will talk more about motivation in a later episode. But here, we will take a moment to recognize one ineffective strategy often deployed by experts who want learners to believe that a task is as easy as they think it is. This often manifests in using the word “just” in explanations, as in, “Look, it is easy, you just… (wave magic wand with undecipherable incantations)” This language gives learners the very clear signal that the person helping them thinks their problem is trivial and that there must be something wrong with them if they do not experience it that way.
With practice, we can change the way we speak to avoid dismissive language and replace it with more positive and motivating word choices.
- What other words or phrases, besides “just”, can have the same effect of dismissing the experience of finding a subject difficult or unclear?
- Propose an alternate phrasing for one of the suggestions above.
Write your examples and alternatives in the Etherpad.
This exercise should take about 5 minutes.
It is hard to break the habit of trying to convince learners that a task is “easy”! A few alternatives might include statements like:
- “This task will become really easy once you have learned how to do it.”
- “We only need to learn two new commands to accomplish the next task.”
- “This task may feel like it will take you all year to learn, but in my experience it will take you a lot less time than that to master it.”
Another well-intended move that can go wrong in the presence of awareness gaps is the call for questions. An Instructor may accidentally dismiss learner confusion by asking for questions in a way that reveals that they do not actually expect that anyone will have them. Asking, “Does anyone have any questions?” implies that most people will not; the shorter the wait time before moving on, the more this implication is magnified. Instead, consider asking “What questions do you have?” and leaving a healthy pause for consideration. This firmly establishes an expectation that people will, indeed, have questions, and should challenge themselves to formulate them.
As you seek to re-acquaint yourself with the novice experience, it can be tempting to think back to your own experiences getting started in programming. Trips down memory lane can be productive! However, it is important that you take care not to generalize from your experience to that of your novice learners.
We will talk more about knowing your audience in a later episode. For now, here are two points to keep in mind when contemplating the learner experience
- In most cases a researcher’s primary goal is not to learn programming, but to do better and more efficient research. They may not wish to take the time to learn how fundamental syntax or data structures work, or to learn any ‘fun facts’ that are not strictly necessary; they just want to know how to get their work done. This does not mean they never will be interested – maybe this is how you got your start, too! But if you began with an interest in programming, keep in mind that this can make their learning experience very different from yours.
- Some researchers have avoided learning programming previously because they believe that the time investment will be excessive and will interfere with their other work. These kinds of beliefs can make their motivation to persevere more fragile than yours might have been when you got started.
Many of the foundational concepts of computer science, such as computability, are difficult to learn and not immediately useful. This does not mean that they are not important, or are not worth learning, but if our aim is to convince people that they can learn this stuff, and that doing so will help them do more research faster, they are less compelling than things like automating repetitive tasks.
As we have seen, the high connectivity of an expert’s mental model poses challenges while teaching novices. However, that is not to say that experts cannot be great teachers! Because of their well-connected knowledge, self-aware experts are well-poised to help students make meaningful connections, to confidently turn an error into a learning opportunity, or to explain a complex topic in multiple ways. Experts can be highly effective as long as they learn to identify and correct for their own expert awareness gaps. Whether or not you identify as an expert, we hope this episode has started you on the path toward developing that skill.
How can you make sure that expert awareness gaps are not negatively affecting your workshop? Keep in touch with your learners through frequent formative assessment! If you stumble into an expert awareness gap, create confusion by using interchangeable terms, or accidentally discourage rather than inviting questions, formative assessment has the power to bring these problems to the surface. As you develop teaching skill, you may be able to avoid these pitfalls. Until then, becoming aware of when they occur will help you to keep their impact under control.