The End of Expertise

IMG_1726Here’s a interestingly provocative article for all of us in education. How Much Do we Need to Know? by Peter Evans-Greenwood.

It opens with:

We used to be defined by what we knew. But today, knowing too much can be a liability.

Here are some of the key threads from the article:

Expertise matters in a few narrowly highly technical roles but in most instances a generalist will do just as well and in some cases better than the experts because they are more likely to come up with something new.

Expertise is inherently a backwards-looking concept that worked well in the past when knowledge and skills were expensive and difficult to acquire.

Digital technology is changing our relationship with knowledge and, consequently, with expertise

The generalist is no longer at a disadvantage to the specialist, as most (if not all) specialist knowledge and skills are available on-demand.

Today we invest our time exploring the problem we’re trying to solve, and the context we’re solving it in, rather pouring most of our effort into finding the information we need.

We’re also increasingly finding ourselves asked to solve new problems, create new products and services, and, in some cases, even rethink how entire industries and sectors of the economy work. This is what we commonly refer to as “digital disruption”, even though that term fails to capture the full extent of the social change that is bearing down on us.

We’re moving from working in the system that is a business, to working on the system. The consequence of this is that it’s becoming more important to have the general capabilities and breadth of experience that enable us to develop and improve the system in novel directions, than it is to have deep, highly entailed experience in working within the current system. There will always be a need for narrowly focused expertise in highly technical areas, but in the majority of cases the generalist now has an advantage over the specialist.

This raises an interesting conundrum. While you might need to know as much as you did in the past, it’s not clear just how much you do need to know now. This is a particular problem for educators and firms as they want to arm the individuals under their care with the knowledge and skills required to be successful in the workplace. Teaching too little means that the individual will not be effective at what they do. Teaching too much implies that we are wasting the individual’s time (and money, in many cases).

In many cases the only person who can judge how much knowledge is enough will be the individual, as “how much is enough” will be determined by the problem that they are trying to solve and the context that they are trying to solve it in.

So the question we asked at the start of this post – How much do you need to know? – is clearly the wrong question to be asking.

And here’s how he concludes with some statements that need to be taken up by those in  education. If he is right about the force and speed of social change bearing down upon us schools and education will surely experience that force in no small measure.

Rather than focus trying to know (or teach) everything that might be relevant (the old competence model) we need to move up a level, focusing on metacognition. This means providing people with the tools needed to manage knowledge their own: fostering the sensitivity required to know when knowledge and skills have run out, creating time and space so that they can invest in their own knowledge management, and encouraging the habits of mind that mean that they have the ability and attitude to do something about it.

The author enriches his thesis with examples from engineering, film study and construction.

Writing this post helped me grasp the ideas in the PEG article. Don’t rely on my learning. Read it and do your own learning. I recommend it!

And so I was thinking of examples from my own experience and what came to mind is the world of graphic design. When incredibly powerful, free and easy-to-use tools like Canva are there to help with graphic design production the need to call in the expert shrinks. Of course there’s still a role for the highly skilled designer but s/he is no longer needed to produce an effective poster, Facebook cover page or the party invitation. That’s all mix, match, upload, select, drag and drop.

For me this all raises some key questions that I think should become a conversation in schools.

And perhaps it starts with thinking about what we have traditionally considered an education. Getting an education has meant moving up through the system, successfully mastering the requirements and an accretion of ever higher certificates, levels, diplomas and degrees. An education has often been something done to you – delivered in digestible packages. It was a process from which you emerged weighted with the symbols of the educated – the transcript, GPA, test scores, caps, gowns, diplomas and all the rest.

Definitions of what it means to be educated change: Think about what it meant to be “literate” in 1980 or even 2000  and compare that with the expectation for today. A  literate student of 2015 needs a hugely expanded set of basic skills to function effectively.

Given all that could be known (and taught) in school how do we select and choose? Perhaps that is the wrong question. Maybe we need to focus on developing – in that oft-repeated cliche – lifelong learners. If it’s the learning that matters then we need a culture that promotes it. And a culture of learning is not an ever-expanding set of imposed demands and a “rigorous” curriculum. It is not focussing on endless credentials and an accretion of random chunks.

A culture of learning  means seeking the knowledge and skills and resources needed to solve the problems we seek. It means risk-taking and intellectual adventure, a focus on what it takes for students to develop the agency to self-organize their own education. It means helping them connect with expanding networks of resources, skills, tools and the people (some of them experts!) who can be helpful.  It’s not individual pods of expertise but ever-widening networks of people who are always learning.





1 Comment

  1. Karen:

    ….and it begins in early education by providing intentional opportunities for young learners to build their self-confidence and sense of independence not only through play but by giving them ample time and space to explore materials in their classroom and their surrounding environment. It includes the development of an appreciation for the wondrous “outdoor classroom” and the encouragement and ability to pursue self-interests which ultimately drive the learning process. It connects real-life situations with hands-on learning in the “classroom” — and that without question fosters the development of – that oft-repeated cliche – a lifelong learner. Great piece!

Random Posts