Experts, Learning, and Networks

Apparently, as I read Harold Jarche's response "Who are the experts?" to my critique of his earlier posting, there is some misunderstanding of my points. I thought I would clarify them. I'll do that below, first covering two interesting comments he made. One was:

I am only as good as my last project. Knowledge workers are like actors, we are only as good as our last performance. For a fleeting moment, we may be viewed as experts, but for not much longer.

Many of my students, and I imagine many people, would like to think that after a certain amount of training, they become an expert and there's no need to continue learning. But in our fast-changing world, having Jarche's attitude of being only as good as one's last job is the sort of perspective that keeps us learning, which seems to be ever more crucial for survival nowadays.

How can teachers and educational institutions help students acquire this sort of attitude? I think that one way is modeling it, making transparent the fact that we are always learning and to share how we are always learning with our students, making it a natural, pervading aspect of the classroom and school. For example, this past year, I have had my students blogging, and in the past I have had them keep learning journals, journals contained with observations of their learning. I also maintained a blog separate from this one for my classes. Mostly, I used it for examples of what they needed to do and recaps of what we've covered in class. However, I didn't include anything I was learning. So, this coming year, I'm considering how to include what I'm learning--perhaps new theories, perhaps new ways of teaching--and comment on it in class, drawing them into a conversation that compares my learning with theirs. Any comments? Email me. I'd appreciate it.

Another point Jarche made that's worth thinking about is:

my greatest asset is my network. Perhaps individual expertise is gradually being replaced by collaborative expertise.

Although I wouldn't quite say that individual expertise is being replaced by collaborative expertise, not enough attention is paid to the notion of collaborative expertise with respect to education.

Both types of expertise have existed for quite some time. In earlier times, the activity of hunting could include two roles: noisemakers and slaughterers. The noisemakers would beat drums or other items to drive the animals towards the hunters lying in wait, who would kill the animals when they approached.

The need for more complex networks increases according to the complexity ot the activity. Consider the activity of health care. A hospital's activity, for instance, is distributed among many people, each of them occupying particular niches and no one of them knowing every aspect of every other niche and task in the hospital. The different levels of expertise are interdependent, and both the "collaborative expertise" of the hospital and the expertise of its members are needed for health care activity to take place.

We see the same phenomenon in educational institutions with teachers, other staff, and administrators. What's interesting to me is that similar to the role of patients in a hospital is the role of students in schools. That is, patients are usually treated as if they had no expertise, or knowledge, and likewise, students. Students are often treated as receivers of content rather than creators of knowledge. Just as important, students are often considered mostly as individuals rather than as members of networks or ecologies. Just as patients are not considered part of the community of health care practice, neither are students considered as part of the community of knowledge creation.

In their book, Wenger, McDermott, and Synder posit that there are seven principles for Cultivating Communities of Practice:

  1. Design for evolution.
  2. Open a dialogue between inside and outside perspectives.
  3. Invite different levels of participation.
  4. Develop both public and private community spaces.
  5. Focus on value.
  6. Combine familiarity and excitement.
  7. Create a rhythm for the community. (p. 50)

As they note, these are principles, not a "recipe." These principles were oriented towards business organizations. I'm not quite sure how they would apply in an elementary school with respect to students. As we move into middle school, high school, and college, they seem to be more applicable. For now, I'll limit myself mostly to the college level.

What sorts of structures facilitate schools to become communities of practice? One would be to facilitate student (and teacher) reflection on class and school practices, whether through open discussion, an anonymous suggestion box, as part of student self-evaluations throughout the semester or year, and so on. That would also require a certain flexibility and open-mindedness on the part of teachers, staff, and administrators to consider student input seriously and invite them into implementations. Otherwise, the students are not really a part of the community.

Along these lines, our classrooms often operate as self-contained entities, making the "learning" that occurs in it irrelevant to and not valued by the students. More needs to be done on taking the learning outside the classroom and bringing outside reality into the classroom, to turn the classroom into a living network that interacts with other networks. Technology can help facilitate the blurring of classroom boundaries. Will Richardson, in his book Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and Other Powerful Web Tools for Classrooms, mentions how his high school class corresponded with Sue Monk Kidd, the author of The Secret Life of Bees (and other books), and they wrote an online study guide for the book, which at the printing of his book had already received more than 1.5 million hits.

Regarding our networks and our students' networks as great "assets" in designing our classes to be communities of practice is a notion well-worth considering if learning is our focus.

Clarification of points

Jarche wrote:

Dr. Nelson feels that experts are necessary, or “learning can become derailed or even stopped in its tracks.” He says that experts should proceed with humility, but that experts are necessary for our field to progress.

I did not tie a lack of experts to derailing or stopping learning. Rather, I said a lack of critical thinking can derail or stop learning:

To learn, to engage in critical thinking, we need to play both the "believing game" and the "doubting game." With respect to a flattened learning economy with no experts, there's been too much reliance on the believing game. It's time to play the doubting game: instead of "echoing," we need to question our common "refrains." Otherwise, learning can become derailed or even stopped in its tracks.

Nor did I claim that experts were "necessary" for progress. What I did say was that experts existed, and given a choice, most people would prefer to be advised or taught by an expert than by someone who knows no more than they do. Applying this to education, of course, I want my children to be taught by teachers who know considerably more about teaching than the average person walking down the street.

Jarche quotes me,

There are two false assumptions here. One is that subverting hiearchy results in no experts …

The second is that “hyperlinks subvert hierarchy”.

and claims:

Without heirarchies, no authority can tell us who is the expert. ...

Personally, I know that hyperlinks subvert heirarchies. ...

By subverting traditional business heirarchies ...

On hyperlinks not subverting hierarchies, Jarche seems to equate subverting "traditional" hierarchies as equivalent to getting rid of all hierarchy. Citing Mark Bernstein, my point was that old hierarchies are simply replaced with new ones.

Not having an authority to tell us who is an expert does not mean that there are no experts. When I think of what an expert is, my thoughts are close to this definition from; an expert is,

A person with a high degree of skill in or knowledge of a certain subject. ...

a person with special or superior skill or knowledge in a particular area.

It seems obvious, at least to me, that some people, compared to others, have much more knowledge or skill in certain areas. As I mentioned in my post, if I want my car fixed, I go to a mechanic who has "a high degree of skill in" fixing cars.

Jarche talks about patients who co-manage their health with their doctor. I'm one of them. Even so, unless I have strong reason not to (and in that case I get a second opinion or a new doctor), I defer to the doctor who has 4 years of medical school, 3-5+ years of residency, and often 10+ years of practice. It's possible that I may "get the scoop" on my doctor on a particular disease. Even so, is it realistic to compare my 1-2 (perhaps 3-4 or more) weeks of research on a particular illness with the 15-25+ years of experience of my doctor? In what way has my several weeks, even months, of research flattened the doctor's 15-25 years of experience and made us equal?

So, I keep wondering, Why does Jarche (and others) say, "I'm no expert"? Is it some sort of self-effacement? Some sort of anti-intellectualism? (See, for example, Todd Gitlin's review in The Chronicle Review of Hofstadter's Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.) Or, are people following Socrates' lead, proclaiming, "I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing." I have to admit, the more I learn, the less I seem to know. Still, one thing for sure, if a consultant says they know nothing and a potential client believes them, that job is gone.