Novice→Expert Model of Learning 

A Novice→Expert Model of Learning

Home/learning/A Novice→Expert Model of Learning

Every artist was first an amateur.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

One of the best understood principles of cognitive psychology is that novices learn and think differently to experts. These labels are domain-specific, not person-specific; I can be an expert at particle physics whilst still being a novice at evolutionary biology. Or skateboarding. Similarly, you could be an expert skateboarder whilst knowing little of nothing about theatre design or ancient Tibetan languages. What this means is that we’re all novices at something, and many of us will be experts in at least one domain.

To demonstrate how you think differently as an expert to how you think as a novice, let’s try a brief thought experiment. Pick something you consider yourself to be something of an authority on. Expertise is relative, so don’t be shy. If you’re a teacher you’ll be fairly expert at many of the things you teach. For instance, I know a heck of a lot about Macbeth. I’ve seen four different theatre productions and at least five different film adaptations. On top of that, I must have taught it to perhaps 20 different classes, several times as an A level text (although I’ve never actually studied it as a student.) I’ve also read several books of literary criticism. As a consequence, I’m steeped in the bloody thing! Not only do I know the characters and plot inside out, I can quote sizeable chunks of it. I know a fair bit about the context in which it was first written and performed and also about how its critical reception has varied over the centuries. Whilst I’d never have the hubris to describe myself as an expert – there’s always someone who knows a lot more – I’m not too shabby. In comparison, despite my grounding in literature as an academic study, I know practically nothing about French dramatist, Nicolas de Montreux’s 1601 tragedy, Sophonisbe beyond the fact that it’s about a Carthaginian woman who lived during the Second Punic War with Rome.

Now, imagine I had to write an essay about each of these plays. If you gave me any essay question on Macbeth I’d feel pretty confident that I’d have something interesting – although perhaps not original – to say. But faced with writing about Sophonisbe, even if I had a translated copy in front of me, would be tough. Why might this be? Although I’m pretty good at essay writing and know how a literature essay is supposed to sound, I’d struggle to write much worth reading about Sophonisbe because I don’t know anything about it. I’d have to rely on guesswork, half-formed thoughts and trite stabs at close analysis. No doubt I’d do better than many other people who’ve never studied or taught literature, but I’m pretty sure that any literature undergraduate who’d actually read and seen the play would be able to outclass me. Basically, in literature – as in every other domain – specific knowledge trumps general ability. Now think about how poorly I’d be likely to do if I was assessed on organic chemistry, or tightrope walking.

Our ability to pay attention is limited to about four ‘chunks’. These chunks can be very small – like the tiny smattering of Japanese vocabulary I possess – or pretty big like my knowledge of Macbeth. Experts ‘hack’ the limits of working memory by being able to draw on huge reserves of inter-related chunks of knowledge, allowing them to free up cognitive resources to enable them to think about the novel aspects of whatever they’re thinking about. Think of it this way: a novice struggles to see the wood for the trees. If trying to navigate through a forest they’d head in and hope for the best but would quickly become confused and lost. An expert would take time to survey possible routes through the forest; they’d think about other occasions on which they’d undertaken similar journeys. They’d plan their path and, if they did get sidetracked, would have a range of strategies both for noticing the detour and for getting back on track. The novice’s experience of walking through the forest would be completely different to the expert’s.

So, how can we move from novice to expert? Broadly, I think there are two main hallmarks of expertise:

  1. Automaticity of foundational procedures
  2. Ability to see ‘deep’ structure within domains of expertise

We need to master various procedural knowledge to the point where we no longer have to think about it so that it doesn’t take up space in working memory. These automatised procedures are often so well embedded that experts are not even aware of them. Although we might not actively think about these things, we most certainly think withthem. This lack of insight into the source of expertise is sometimes called the curse of knowledge, and can lead us into neglecting the teaching of the vital nuts and bolts on which expertise depends. When you learn to drive, concentrating on your feet, hands, mirrors and the environment outside the car requires enormous cognitive resources: you have to pay attention to everything. When you’ve been driving for a few years, the basic operations for changing gear and and taking a right hand turn have been automatised. Your working memory is free to attend to road conditions and make predictions about what is likely to happen in the next few seconds. Likewise, when writing an essay, a novice will have to pay attention to such minutiae as punctuation, capital letters, sentence structure and academic tone. With practice, these things can be automatised allowing much greater availability of working memory to think about the content of the essay. This is equally true of any domain of expertise: the less attention we have to give to the basics, the more we can think about what matters.

The second area – the ability to see ‘deep’ structures – comes with the experience of thinking about domain-specific knowledge. The more we know and the more practice we have at identifying and solving problems within in a domain, the more likely we are to see through the superficial trappings of a problem to the underlying structures beneath. When we become aware of these structures we become increasingly able to transfer our ideas between contexts. The more I know about the domain of literature, the easier I find it to see connections between different texts. For instance, when I first watched Reservoir Dogs, with all its all long monologues and blood-thirsty revenge, and especially the set-piece stand-off in the final scene where everyone shoots everyone else, my immediate thought was, Oh, it’s a Senecan tragedy! How was I able to see past all the silly names and ear slicing to see this underlying structure? Well, I took Classical Studies at A level and had read a couple of the Roman dramatist, Seneca’s plays, then, as part of my English literature degree I’d been shown Seneca’s influence on Hamlet, as well as writing an essay comparing Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy and Titus Andronicus. You could say I understood some essential dramatic principle but that would add an unnecessary layer of obfuscation – I simply knew more than lots of other people who saw the film and arrived at very different conclusions.

All this is to make the point that expertise, changes how we think. Here are a few of the essential differences:

NovicesExperts
Little relevant background knowledgeLots of relevant background knowledge
Relies on working memoryRelies on long-memory
Lacks effective mental representations of successful performanceHas a clear mental representation of successful performance within a domain
Has not automatised necessary procedural knowledgeNecessary procedural knowledge has been automatised.
Only has explicit knowledgePossesses huge reserves of tacit knowledge
Problem solving requires following clear stepsProblem solving is intuitive
Sees superficial detailsSees underlying structures
Learns little when exposed to new informationLearns a lot when exposed to information about which they are already knowledgeable
Learns best through explicit instruction and worked examplesLearns best through discovery approaches
Is more likely to experience cognitive overload as attention is swamped by new informationIs unlikely to experience cognitive overload as attention is buttressed by memorised ‘chunks’ of knowledge
Struggles to transfer principles to new contentsIs able to transfer principles between related domains

These strongly suggests that the continuum from novice to expert is what we most need to understand when designing instructional sequences for students. While our aim will be for them to become increasingly expert, we need to acknowledge that they will be novices for the greater part of their time in school.

This graphic (adapted from something Greg Ashman came up with back in his Harry Webb incarnation) is a neat shorthand of some of the points above:

As a way forward, we might do well to implement the strategies Hattie & Donoghue suggest for surface acquisition with novices, and then, as students become increasingly expert, we might think about cautiously moving to the ‘deep’ strategies. I suggest that the ‘transfer’ strategies be reserved for the very end of an extended teaching sequence.

And for those of you who like your models to be a little more complex, the Dreyfus model of skill acquisition may be more to your taste. The Dreyfus brothers proposed that expertise develops in five stages: novice, advanced beginner, competent, proficient, and expert. I’m not sure we need all these categories, but if you like them then I can’t see as they do any harm.

 Novice→Expert Model of Learning

Home/learning/A Novice→Expert Model of Learning

Every artist was first an amateur.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

One of the best understood principles of cognitive psychology is that novices learn and think differently to experts. These labels are domain-specific, not person-specific; I can be an expert at particle physics whilst still being a novice at evolutionary biology. Or skateboarding. Similarly, you could be an expert skateboarder whilst knowing little of nothing about theatre design or ancient Tibetan languages. What this means is that we’re all novices at something, and many of us will be experts in at least one domain.

To demonstrate how you think differently as an expert to how you think as a novice, let’s try a brief thought experiment. Pick something you consider yourself to be something of an authority on. Expertise is relative, so don’t be shy. If you’re a teacher you’ll be fairly expert at many of the things you teach. For instance, I know a heck of a lot about Macbeth. I’ve seen four different theatre productions and at least five different film adaptations. On top of that, I must have taught it to perhaps 20 different classes, several times as an A level text (although I’ve never actually studied it as a student.) I’ve also read several books of literary criticism. As a consequence, I’m steeped in the bloody thing! Not only do I know the characters and plot inside out, I can quote sizeable chunks of it. I know a fair bit about the context in which it was first written and performed and also about how its critical reception has varied over the centuries. Whilst I’d never have the hubris to describe myself as an expert – there’s always someone who knows a lot more – I’m not too shabby. In comparison, despite my grounding in literature as an academic study, I know practically nothing about French dramatist, Nicolas de Montreux’s 1601 tragedy, Sophonisbe beyond the fact that it’s about a Carthaginian woman who lived during the Second Punic War with Rome.

Now, imagine I had to write an essay about each of these plays. If you gave me any essay question on Macbeth I’d feel pretty confident that I’d have something interesting – although perhaps not original – to say. But faced with writing about Sophonisbe, even if I had a translated copy in front of me, would be tough. Why might this be? Although I’m pretty good at essay writing and know how a literature essay is supposed to sound, I’d struggle to write much worth reading about Sophonisbe because I don’t know anything about it. I’d have to rely on guesswork, half-formed thoughts and trite stabs at close analysis. No doubt I’d do better than many other people who’ve never studied or taught literature, but I’m pretty sure that any literature undergraduate who’d actually read and seen the play would be able to outclass me. Basically, in literature – as in every other domain – specific knowledge trumps general ability. Now think about how poorly I’d be likely to do if I was assessed on organic chemistry, or tightrope walking.

Our ability to pay attention is limited to about four ‘chunks’. These chunks can be very small – like the tiny smattering of Japanese vocabulary I possess – or pretty big like my knowledge of Macbeth. Experts ‘hack’ the limits of working memory by being able to draw on huge reserves of inter-related chunks of knowledge, allowing them to free up cognitive resources to enable them to think about the novel aspects of whatever they’re thinking about. Think of it this way: a novice struggles to see the wood for the trees. If trying to navigate through a forest they’d head in and hope for the best but would quickly become confused and lost. An expert would take time to survey possible routes through the forest; they’d think about other occasions on which they’d undertaken similar journeys. They’d plan their path and, if they did get sidetracked, would have a range of strategies both for noticing the detour and for getting back on track. The novice’s experience of walking through the forest would be completely different to the expert’s.

So, how can we move from novice to expert? Broadly, I think there are two main hallmarks of expertise:

  1. Automaticity of foundational procedures
  2. Ability to see ‘deep’ structure within domains of expertise

We need to master various procedural knowledge to the point where we no longer have to think about it so that it doesn’t take up space in working memory. These automatised procedures are often so well embedded that experts are not even aware of them. Although we might not actively think about these things, we most certainly think with them. This lack of insight into the source of expertise is sometimes called the curse of knowledge, and can lead us into neglecting the teaching of the vital nuts and bolts on which expertise depends. When you learn to drive, concentrating on your feet, hands, mirrors and the environment outside the car requires enormous cognitive resources: you have to pay attention to everything. When you’ve been driving for a few years, the basic operations for changing gear and and taking a right hand turn have been automatised. Your working memory is free to attend to road conditions and make predictions about what is likely to happen in the next few seconds. Likewise, when writing an essay, a novice will have to pay attention to such minutiae as punctuation, capital letters, sentence structure and academic tone. With practice, these things can be automatised allowing much greater availability of working memory to think about the content of the essay. This is equally true of any domain of expertise: the less attention we have to give to the basics, the more we can think about what matters.

The second area – the ability to see ‘deep’ structures – comes with the experience of thinking about domain-specific knowledge. The more we know and the more practice we have at identifying and solving problems within in a domain, the more likely we are to see through the superficial trappings of a problem to the underlying structures beneath. When we become aware of these structures we become increasingly able to transfer our ideas between contexts. The more I know about the domain of literature, the easier I find it to see connections between different texts. For instance, when I first watched Reservoir Dogs, with all its all long monologues and blood-thirsty revenge, and especially the set-piece stand-off in the final scene where everyone shoots everyone else, my immediate thought was, Oh, it’s a Senecan tragedy! How was I able to see past all the silly names and ear slicing to see this underlying structure? Well, I took Classical Studies at A level and had read a couple of the Roman dramatist, Seneca’s plays, then, as part of my English literature degree I’d been shown Seneca’s influence on Hamlet, as well as writing an essay comparing Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy and Titus Andronicus. You could say I understood some essential dramatic principle but that would add an unnecessary layer of obfuscation – I simply knew more than lots of other people who saw the film and arrived at very different conclusions.

All this is to make the point that expertise, changes how we think. Here are a few of the essential differences:

NovicesExperts
Little relevant background knowledgeLots of relevant background knowledge
Relies on working memoryRelies on long-memory
Lacks effective mental representations of successful performanceHas a clear mental representation of successful performance within a domain
Has not automatised necessary procedural knowledgeNecessary procedural knowledge has been automatised.
Only has explicit knowledgePossesses huge reserves of tacit knowledge
Problem solving requires following clear stepsProblem solving is intuitive
Sees superficial detailsSees underlying structures
Learns little when exposed to new informationLearns a lot when exposed to information about which they are already knowledgeable
Learns best through explicit instruction and worked examplesLearns best through discovery approaches
Is more likely to experience cognitive overload as attention is swamped by new informationIs unlikely to experience cognitive overload as attention is buttressed by memorised ‘chunks’ of knowledge
Struggles to transfer principles to new contentsIs able to transfer principles between related domains

These strongly suggests that the continuum from novice to expert is what we most need to understand when designing instructional sequences for students. While our aim will be for them to become increasingly expert, we need to acknowledge that they will be novices for the greater part of their time in school.

This graphic (adapted from something Greg Ashman came up with back in his Harry Webb incarnation) is a neat shorthand of some of the points above:

How to avoid the trap of getting stuck in an Expert Beginner role

Dreyfus model lists five phases of skill acquisition:

  1. Novice
  2. Competent
  3. Proficient
  4. Expert
  5. Master

When paired with what Dreyfus refers to as Mental Functions (Recollection, Recognition, Decision and Awareness), the skill acquisition moves from “following the rules dogmatically without the awareness of the big picture”, to “complete grasp of the big picture which manifests in the act of intuitive transcending of rules”. So, while a Novice exhibits non-situational recollection, decomposed recognition analytical decision making and monitoring awareness, Master exhibits situational recollection, holistic recognition, intuitive decision making and absorbed awareness. And everything in-between (refer to the table below):

From novice to master

In an optimistic situation, skill levels progress linearly, from Novice to Competent, then from Competent to Proficient, after which we progress from Proficient to Expert, and finally from Expert to Master:

From novice to master 2

Leaving the ultimate level (Mastery) out for the purposes of this discussion, let’s look into how things play out when we introduce a finer grained phase into the picture – Advanced Beginner:

Advanced beginner

While Novices are obviously unsure of what lies ahead in terms of training needed to acquire necessary skills, after spending some time in training and reaching the Advanced Beginner status, trainees now gain much needed confidence. No one likes to feel inadequate, so Novices are extremely motivated to graduate to a higher skill level.

Advanced Beginner is that next level. Practitioners reaching Advanced Beginner stage possess some skills but nevertheless lack the insight into the big picture. Because of that lack of insight, Advanced Beginners are in danger of confusing themselves with Experts.

As they continue their skills acquisition trajectory, Advanced Beginners can take two paths:

  1. Graduate to the Competent
  2. Graduate to the Expert Beginner

If they graduate to the Competent stage, they gain the first precious insight into the big picture. At that point, the insight into the big picture (regardless of how incomplete that insight may be) prevents them from confusing themselves with Experts. Competent people are those who know that they don’t know. If Advanced Beginners graduate to the Expert Beginner level, they typically assume that now they’ve graduated to the Expert level, period. That assumption is fortified by the absence of insight into the big picture.

Expert beginner

What is also typical for the Expert Beginner level is that it is reinforced by the optimistic self-assessment which goes something like this: “I know that I’m doing it right because, as an expert, I’m pretty much doing everything right by definition.” (i.e., they are still rules-bound).

Expert Beginner is more advanced than the Advanced Beginner for the simple reason that Expert Beginner has more experience being a beginner. But Expert Beginner doesn’t yet have sufficient experience to be able to reach the level of Competent practitioner (due to the lack of the grasp of the big picture).

So, while Competent practitioner may boast something like “ten years of experience”, Expert Beginner can actually boast “one year of experience ten times.” Notice the lack of progress in Expert Beginner.

Progress is not possible without the awareness that there is more hard work awaiting to be done. But if we feel that we’ve reached the level of Expert, what else is there that remains to be done?

The desire to deviate and to experiment vanishes from the Expert Beginner’s repertoire. And with it, any hope for progress disappears. It’s status quo that stretches indefinitely into the future.

From the outset, clearly this hierarchy of definitions will crescendo in the order cited. However, nowadays, these different terms are often confused or exchanged.

Novice

This term designates a person who lacks experience in practice in the exercise of a profession, an activity, a technique or an art.

Amateur

This polysemic term sometimes common name and sometimes adjective qualifies in its first sense, a person who loves, cultivates, searches (certain things), like a music lover who can be a possible buyer.

An amateur is a person who engages in an activity outside his professional framework, generally without remuneration, and whose motivation comes essentially from passion. This activity can be artistic, sporting, etc.

It also designates a person who cultivates an activity, a technique, an art or a science for his sole pleasure and not by profession. An amateur talent.

In sport, this adjective qualifies the athlete, player or participant who practices without receiving direct remuneration as opposed to professional.

In the derogatory sense, it refers to a person who carries out an activity in a careless or fanciful manner. Amateur work.

Professional

The professional is a person exercising a profession or a trade.

Professionalism characterizes the quality and consistency of the work of an experienced person. Professionalism is the ability to ensure a commitment to society and to meet its expectations.

Consultant, Advisor or Counsel

Consultant is an anglicism, the translation of which is Counselor or Counselor, who designates a service provider in counseling who has proven expertise in a very specific field without being a specialist.

Advisers are often grouped together in consulting companies, or they act independently.

The consultant appoints a specialist outside an organization who is called upon to obtain advice on a question or to assist in solving a specific problem.

Specialist

The specialist is the person with theoretical knowledge in one or more precise disciplines, frequently linked together, and is thus distinguished from the general practitioner with general knowledge.

Expert

The Expert is a person who, in addition to having theoretical knowledge in one or more areas of knowledge, has acquired in this or these same areas, advanced practical knowledge and recognized by his peers.

In addition, by his great experience, the expert is supposed to have acquired particular skills allowing him to carry out in particular expert opinions with the courts, governments, public communities and private institutions.

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