Experts in the Learning Profession

Harold Jarche, an independent consultant in Canada, writes on "The relevance of the learning profession" and has quite a few good comments, such as:

Democracy is subversive and so is the Web. In a connected world, every learner brings his or her own network with them. Learners no longer integrate into the educational system, they connect their network to it - if they want to. How relevant is an educational system that does not allow learners to connect their personal, professional or vocational networks to the “system”?

I like the assertions that education needs to be relevant and that learners need to connect their worlds to the world of educational institutions. Here are some more good thoughts:

As a learning professional, it’s time to take a stance. Enabling learning is no longer about disseminating good content. Enabling learning is about being a learner yourself, sharing your knowledge and enthusiasm and then taking a back seat.

These are important premises of good teaching. But, Jarche goes one claim too far:

In a flattened learning system there are no more experts, only fellow learners on paths that may cross.

Are there really "no more experts"? When I want my car fixed, I go to a mechanic. When I need my body repaired, I go to a doctor. When I have a question on Tinderbox and have become so frustrated that I'm banging my head on my laptop, I go to Mark Bernstein.

Of course, there are experts. Out of an ideological zeal for egalitarianism, however, the Internet crowd, along with many educators, love to chant the mantra "there are no experts." But this is only grouptalk resulting from too much groupthinking. As Jarche himself says,

Most bloggers (including me) have been echoing the Cluetrain refrain that "hyperlinks subvert hierarchy".

There are two false assumptions here. One is that subverting hiearchy results in no experts. There's simply no evidence for such a claim--not to mention that one can just as easily imagine a diversity of experts occupying a variety of niches even in a flattened ecology.

The second is that "hyperlinks subvert hierarchy." Mark Bernstein has effectively responded to this asssumption in "Do Links Subvert the Hierarchy?" He notes that although links can break hierarchies,

there's no evidence that these links don't simply form a new hierarchy -- or even recreate the old one -- although there's no particular evidence that they do.

Yes, learning needs to be relevant. However, relevance does not exclude either hierarchy or experts. All other things being equal, is there anyone who, when they want to learn something, prefers to go a peer instead of an expert?

Perhaps I've overreacted. Perhaps what Jarche primarily meant is that teachers should assume the "humility" of those who learn beside their students rather than the "arrogance" of those who hover over them with authority or expertise. Certainly. Still, I have heard this claim enough times to know that many believe that there are, or should be, no experts in the "teaching profession."

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.