Wednesday, July 8, 2015

How People Learn: Experts and Novices

Diving into my promised book study...

Chapter 2  of "How People Learn" focuses on research about how experts in varied fields differ from newer learners.  The studies range from chess masters and mathematicians to experts in programming and history, and I'll grab two important ideas from the set of principles.

One is about learners getting to mastery of the big ideas. I'm reading that "experts have acquired a great deal of content knowledge that is organized in ways that reflect a deep understanding of their subject matter" and also that "experts notice features and meaningful patterns of information that are not noticed by novices." For both versions, I'm thinking of the ways middle school students take on their music collection or their sports-passion. It's not on the scale of the major disciplines, but I think it's the same process of getting to where you really can see the forest and understand the trees.

For education, the biggest implication is that learners need lots of exposure to get the main ideas and see how they work with varied examples.  If they're just asked to learn many separate bits, they can't possibly remember of use what they've encountered.  For education policy, this explains the importance of setting up short, coherent lists of standards: that's what allows the time for students to go deep enough to develop an organized, meaningful sense of what they study.

The other is the new idea (for me) of "conditionalized knowledge," which seems to mean that experts can quickly mobilize the part of their knowledge the fits their current challenge.  The first research example involves expert chess, in which the players turned out to consider just a handful of responses to a given arrangement of pieces, and all of them strong responses.  Because they've learned to which parts of their understanding fits different circumstances, "experts are able to flexibly retrieve important aspects of their knowledge with little attentional effort."

Reading, I can hear teenagers asking over and over: "when will we use this?"  They're trying to figure out where the knowledge fits, and they're hunting for a conditionalized version of the knowledge they're asked to absorb.  The research in this chapter on experts and novices suggests that if schools caninvite students to find good answers to those questions, that will be a big step toward equipping them to develop, keep, and use what they learn.

Both of these ideas seem most relevant as supports for the second central idea of the book: "To develop competence in an area of inquiry, students must: (a) have a deep foundation of factual knowledge, (b) understand facts and ideas in the context of a conceptual framework, and (c) organize knowledge in ways that facilitate retrieval and application."

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