Wednesday, September 16, 2009

#2 Experts and Novices

According to research summarized in How People Learn, it is clear that experts and novices differ in the manner by which they acquire information and problem-solve. What seems implicit in this assertion is that experts learn in a superior manner and produce superior results as a result of their expertise. While this implication is neither made directly by the author nor essential to the understanding of expertise and its impacts on pedagogy, it is pertinent to expand the comparison between experts and novices to include the products of their different methodologies.

The implication that superior learning processes inherently generate superior products is flawed in that it confuses the essential natures or process and the results of process. Many different processes may result in similar products. Processes may differ in quantitative (number of steps, time involved) or qualitative (attention to detail, or ability to connect concepts) aspects; but this does not mean the resultant product will have a meaningful difference. In the example cited in HPL regarding novices and experts selecting images to represent the battle of Lexington, a good deal of attention is paid to the meaningful way in which experts carefully selected an image, while novices chose without much care. What is not presented is the very likely fact that at least some novices and experts chose the same image.

The fact that varying processes may result in similar products has been addressed by fine artists since the development of photography. As it became apparent that a machine could produce life-like images easily, painters found it necessary to experiment in increasingly less realistic forms to achieve dramatic or emotional effect which used to be possible through the execution of skillfully rendered verisimilitude. Impressionism delivered a personal expression of light and form which led to the expression of idiosyncratic dream states in Surrealist works and then to complete abstraction. Abstract art attempted to circumvent representation to achieve a pure form of painterly expression. In time this gave way to the display of mundane, manufactured products, such as Warhol’s soup labels or Du Champ’s toilet.

Many of those who criticize contemporary art fail to recognize the process-orientation inherent in fine art. Contemporary art lacks the visceral power of past masters, but seen in context, with the eye of an expert, can be every bit as revelatory or exciting as representational art. But what is essential to the understanding of the novices’ criticism of contemporary art is that the product itself lacks meaning to them. As such, a lack of expertise bars novices from participating in the culture of fine art and leads to divisions of high and low culture.

We can see a similar divide in the realm of education policy. Theorists and working educators understand expertly that learning itself is a process. Politicians and the general public, however, continue to demand measurable products of student learning. To this, novice, segment of the population the product must be meaningful. Educators cannot allow themselves to be segregated from the society they serve by chasing increased abstraction and valuing process over shared goals.

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