expertise

Quite a few people are agush in enthusiasm about Twitter, a new social networking application that allows quick messages to others. Here's Tim Lauer's Twitter Updates for 2007-04-19:

  • Reading: “Get a First Life: A One Page Satire of Second Life” (http://tinyurl.com/2m9t8a) #
  • Good Morning from Portland… #
  • At Lewis… putting together a painting easel for our life skills classroom… #
  • Visiting another school this morning #
  • Back at school for a bit, than to another meeting…. #
  • In an admin meeting… #

I'm not sure why Tim puts this on his blog nor why anyone would be interested in it. But some obviously are. Liz Lawley writes her thoughts on twitter,

I’m completely fascinated by Twitter right now—in much the same way I was by blogging four years ago, and by ICQ years before that.

Clarence Fisher (Twittervision) has "a mash - up of Google maps and Twitter allowing you to see all of the Twitterers (Twits?) posts in real time posted on a world map." Beth Kanter wonders about Twitter for Nonprofits: Waste of Time or Potentially Useful?. (She has quite a few links to others writing on Twitter.)

But as Kathy Sierra noted some time ago in her article The Twitter Curve, people need to be careful about frittering away their time multi-tasking on less than trivial pursuits. She wrote,

For those of you who don't know about Twitter, it has one purpose in life--to be (in its own words)--A global community of friends and strangers answering one simple question: What are you doing? And people answer it. And answer it. And answer it. Over and over and over again, every moment of every hour, people type in a word, fragment, or sentence about what they're doing right then. (Let's overlook the fact that there can be only one true answer to the question: "I'm typing to tell twitter what I'm doing right now... which is typing to tell twitter what I'm doing right now." Or something else that makes my head hurt.)

About a month ago, she noted being in a minority (Is Twitter TOO Good?). The worst thing is,

this onslaught [of twittering] is keeping us from doing the one thing that makes most of us the happiest... being in flow. Flow requires a depth of thinking and a focus of attention that all that context-switching prevents. Flow requires a challenging use of our knowledge and skills, and that's quite different from mindless tasks we can multitask (eating and watching tv, etc.) Flow means we need a certain amount of time to load our knowledge and skills into our brain RAM. And the more big or small interruptions we have, the less likely we are to ever get there.

And Twitter can keep us from achieving, as noted in her article How to be an Expert, Philip Ross's The Expert Mind, and my post Forget IQ. Just Work Hard! Twittering one's time away may be momentarily pleasurable, but real pleasure, real achievement, and real learning--whether it's learning a language, learning to write, or learning in general--come from real, focused, and challenging endeavors.

Update: Robin Good has posted an excellent introduction to Twitter.

For the convenience of one location, here are my posts on error feedback, along with my sources and links if available.

My posts:

Sources:

Anderson, J. R., Fincham, J. M., & Douglass, S. (1997). The role of examples and rules in the acquisition of a cognitive skill (pdf). Journal of Experimental Psychology, 23, 932-945.

Anderson, J. R., & Schunn, C. D. (2000). Implications of the ACT-R learning theory: No magic bullets (pdf). In R. Glaser (ed.), Advances in instructional psychology: Educational design and cognitive science (pp. 1-33). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum (LE).

Bitchener, J., Young, S., & Cameron, D. (2005). The effect of different types of feedback on student ESL writing. Journal of Second Language Writing, 14, 191-205.

Blackwell, L. S., Trzesniewski, K. H., & Dweck, C. S. (2007). Implicit theories of intelligence predict achievement across an adolescent transition: A longitudinal study and an intervention. Child Development, 78, 246-263. (See here, here, and here for synopses of this work and others by Dweck.)

Chandler, J. (2003). The effects of various kinds of error feedback for improvement in the accuracy and fluency of L2 student writing. Journal of Second Language Writing, 267-296.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2000). The "what" and "why" of goal pursuits: human needs and the self-determination of behavior (pdf). Psychological Inquiry, 11, 227-268. (See homepage for more on self-determination theory.)

DeKeyser, R. (2007). Skill acquisition theory. In B. VanPatten & J. Wiliams (eds.), Theories in Second Language Acquisition. Mahwah, NJ: LE.

Dörnyei, Z. (2001). Teaching and research motivation. Harlow, England: Pearson Education.

Ericsson, K.A., & Charness, N. (1994). Expert Performance: Its structure and acquisition. American Psychologist, 49, 725-747.

Ferris, D. (2004). The "grammar correction" debate in L2 writing: Where are we, and where do we go from here? (and what do we do in the meantime...?) (pdf). Journal of Second Language Writing, 13, 49-62.

---- (2003). Response to student writing: Implications for second language students. Mahwah, NJ: LE.

---- (2002). Treatment of error in second language student writing. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

---- (1999). The case for grammar correction in L2 writing classes: A response to Truscott (1996). Journal of Second Language Writing, 8, 1-11.

Ferris, D., & Hedgcock, J. (2005). Teaching ESL composition: Purpose, process, and practice (2nd ed.). Mahway, NJ: LE.

Hinkel, E. (2004). Teaching academic ESL writing: Practical techniques in vocabulary and grammar. Mahwah, NJ: LE.

Hinkel, E., & Fotos, S. (eds.) (2002). New perspectives on grammar teaching in second language classrooms. Mahwah, NJ: LE.

MIles, J. (2002). Second language writing and research: The writing process and error analysis in student texts. TESL-EJ 6.

Ross, P. (2006). The expert mind. Scientific American, 295(2), 64-71.

Truscott, J. (2004). Evidence and conjective on the effects of correction: A response to Chandler (pdf). Journal of Second Language Writing, 13, 337-343.

---- (1999). The case for "The case against grammar correction in L2 writing classes. A response to Ferris (pdf). JJournal of Second Language Writing, 8, 111-122.

---- (1996). The case against error correction in L2 writing courses (pdf). Language Learning 46, 327-369.

Yates, R., & Kenkel, J. (2002). Responding to sentence-level errors in student writing. Journal of Second Language Writing, 11, 29-47.

Below are bibliography pages with downloadable articles related to the above sources (and some repetition, of course):

ACT-R Theory
Self-determination theory

From the previous posts on learning theory (here and here), two crucial points were:

  1. Acquiring expertise in any field, including language, requires extensive practice.
  2. Effective time on task is the most important factor in learning.

You have to be motivated to practice extensively. Videogamers are and do. They can spend 50-100 hours on a game. Imagine a student spending 50-100 hours writing an essay! In an article on Wired, James Gee comments:

The secret of a videogame as a teaching machine ... [is] its underlying architecture. Each level dances around the outer limits of the player's abilities, seeking at every point to be hard enough to be just doable. In cognitive science, this is referred to as the regime of competence principle, which results in a feeling of simultaneous pleasure and frustration - a sensation as familiar to gamers as sore thumbs. Cognitive scientist Andy diSessa has argued that the best instruction hovers at the boundary of a student's competence. ... Also, good videogames incorporate the principle of expertise. They tend to encourage players to achieve total mastery of one level, only to challenge and undo that mastery in the next, forcing kids to adapt and evolve.

These principles of expertise and competence are also seen in two theories of motivation: self-determination theory and flow.

In self-determiantion theory, motivation is driven by three needs:

  1. autonomy,
  2. social relatedness, and
  3. competence, including informational (not evaluative) feedback on competence, that is, feedback that supports autonomy in learning as opposed to controlling it.

Flow is a state in which one is fully engaged in the task at hand (see this review of Csikszentmihaly's book Finding Flow). Another post noted that flow occurs under certain conditions, three of which are:

  1. clear goals
  2. immediate feedback
  3. tasks that challenge (without unduly frustrating) one's skills

These needs and conditions are an integral part of video games. But have they been in providing error feedback?

Probably not as directly as in other arenas. Just look at the condition of "immediate feedback." In my own first-year composition classes, error feedback is given mostly on essay drafts, which I receive every 2-3 weeks and return in 2-7 days. Can you imagine a basketball coach giving feedback only every few weeks and then a few days after the practice in question?

Although it's not as easy to incorporate these motivation principles into error feedback, I have a few ideas I'll discuss in the next post.

All Error Feedback Posts in this series:
Error Feedback in L2 Writing
Error Feedback in L2 Writing: Scant Evidence
Error Feedback: Theory
Error Feedback: Skill Acquisition Theory
Error Feedback: Motivation
Error Feedback: Practice
Error Feedback: Bibliography

As noted in the previous post on theory in error feedback, the research on expertise and ACT-R Theory suggest that learning a language is similar to learning other activities like chess, music, and math. In this post, we'll look at Skill Acquisition Theory (SAT), which is based upon the work in ACT-R.

Robert DeKeyser (2007) has a good overview of Skill Acquisition Theory. (See Theories in Second Language Acquistion.) As he notes, development has three stages: declarative, procedural, and automatic (from ACT-R Theory). Declarative knowledge refers to explicit knowledge about a topic, as in "knowing" and talking about grammar rules. Procedural knowledge is implicit knowledge that refers to behavior, such as speaking or writing a language. Of course, there are different levels of proficiency in using a language, and thus automaticity is not an "all-or-nothing affair". Automaticity occurs toward the endpoint of extensive practice, toward the point at which one has become completely fluent in a language. From the perspective of SAT, the sequence of these stages is crucial, as is the appropriate "combination of abstract rules and concrete examples" at the declarative stage.

According to DeKeyser, Skill Acquisition Theory does not explain all of language learning and apparently is most effective at beginner levels. He states that SAT works best with

  1. high-aptitutde adult learners engaged in
  2. the learning of simple structures at
  3. fairly early stages of learning
  4. in instructional contexts

It seems obvious that young children will not respond as well as adults to the use of declarative knowledge as their ability to understand rules and explanations is more limited. Conversely, as rules become more complex, they may become too difficult to understand in the form of declarative knowledge. Thus, it's possible that learning (or acquiriing) complex rules may rely more upon implicit processes. Anderson and Schunn (pdf) say something similar:

As knowledge domains become more advanced, their underlying cognitive structure tends to become more obscure. Thus, while it may remain easy to provide feedback on what the final answer is, it becomes difficult to provide feedback on the individual mental steps that lead to the final answer. Teachers often are unaware, at an explicit level, of what this knowledge is and do not know how to teach it to children.

Anderson and Schunn are pointing to the need to diagnose a task and break it down into its components in order to provide effective feedback. When we can't componentialize a task, then feedback becomes considerably less effective. Basically, we can only say then, "No, that's not right" or "Yes, that's it."

Thus, with respect to error correction, we need

  • rules that are not obscure,
  • examples of the rules, and
  • understandable explanations of those rules.

The ability to use declarative knowledge in the learning process does not accelerate acquisition. Rather, it eliminates wasted time and effort.

Before turning to practical suggestions for error correction, I'll look at motivation in my next post.

All Error Feedback Posts in this series:
Error Feedback in L2 Writing
Error Feedback in L2 Writing: Scant Evidence
Error Feedback: Theory
Error Feedback: Skill Acquisition Theory
Error Feedback: Motivation
Error Feedback: Practice
Error Feedback: Bibliography

When the evidence for error feedback is "scant", mostly what we have to go on is theory. Those who oppose error correction would likely assume a nativist framework that includes:

  1. Language acquisition (whether first or second language) differs from general learning processes.
  2. Language acquisition and general learning processes do not interact.
  3. The process of language acquisition cannot be accelerated.

Without reviewing the research, let me say that there are those, even in L1 studies, that assert that language acquistion results from general learning processes (e.g., Christiansen and Chater's working paper, "Language as Shaped by the Brain"). And alternative theories also exist in second language acqusition, such as Skill Acquistion Theory and Associate-Cognitive CREED (Construction-based, Rational, Exemplar-driven, Emergent, and Dialectic). (See Theories in Second Language Acquistion.) So, why would anyone want to take a nativist position? There are more than a few reasons. The main one seems to be the poverty of the stimulus, but in part, one reason seems to be that language acquisition is seen as inexplicably complex while other learning endeavors seem simple in comparison. I would like to suggest that the comparisons being made are simple, but not the objects, or processes, being compared.

I've mentioned Philip Ross's article "The Expert Mind" (in Scientific American, see also my post) on more than one occasion, but it's worthwhile to return to it often. It states,

The preponderance of evidence is that experts are made, not born.

Although not innate, expertise takes time to develop. In general, it takes "takes approximately a decade of heavy labor to master any field." Thus, although it doesn't take much to learn how to move the pieces in chess, becoming a grandmaster of strategy, however, takes at least a decade of intense practice. Similarly, although it doesn't take much to learn a few basic grammar rules and a small vocabulary, becoming fluent in another language--that is, acquiring the "grandmaster status" of a native speaker--takes at least 10 years of intense practice, too.

If the amount of time to acquire expertise is similar between chess, music, art, math, and language, that suggests for learning a language,

  1. the crucial element is practice rather than some language module
  2. the process cannot be accelerated.

Because the process cannot be accelerated, it may matter little whether one takes an nativist or general learning process approach to language acquistion. Note, however, that all practice is not equal. From the article,

Ericsson argues that what matters is not experience per se but "effortful study," which entails continually tackling challenges that lie just beyond one's competence. That is why it is possible for enthusiasts to spend tens of thousands of hours playing chess or golf or a musical instrument without ever advancing beyond the amateur level and why a properly trained student can overtake them in a relatively short time. It is interesting to note that time spent playing chess, even in tournaments, appears to contribute less than such study to a player's progress; the main training value of such games is to point up weaknesses for future study.

The case of enthusiasts practicing without advancing is reminiscent of fossilization, and the "effortful study" reminds me of Krashen's i+1 principle for input. One difference is "point[ing] up weakenesses for future study," a "monitor" approach that Krashen would say does not contribute to language acquisition.

Anderson and Schunn in their article "The implications of the ACT-R learning theory: no magic bullets" (pdf) make similar assertions:

For competences to be displayed over a lifetime, time on task is by far and away the most significant factor.

However, they qualify that to mean "effective time on task." Once again, not all practice is equal. In the case of ACT-R Theory, "effective time on task" is promoted through

  • the use of examples accompanied by explanation and understanding,
  • accurate diagnosis of the learning task and performance, and
  • feedback

It seems that research on expertise and ACT-R Theory would support some form of error correction. Because Skill Acquistion Theory, which draws upon ACT-R and similar theories, focuses on SLA, in my next post, I'll look at it in a little more detail.

All Error Feedback Posts in this series:
Error Feedback in L2 Writing
Error Feedback in L2 Writing: Scant Evidence
Error Feedback: Theory
Error Feedback: Skill Acquisition Theory
Error Feedback: Motivation
Error Feedback: Practice
Error Feedback: Bibliography

Do you ever come across a piece of research that seems both common sense and yet counter to your teaching practices? That's what this article "Rote Learning Improves Memory in Seniors" did for me:

A new study offers older adults a simple way to combat memory loss: memorization. Researchers found that seniors who engaged in an intensive period of rote learning followed by an equally long rest period exhibited improved memory and verbal recall. The study was presented today at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA).

"Use it or lose it"

This study affirms the adage "Use it or lose it" and the notion that you learn what you do: Memorizing improves memory. However, education practice shuns rote learning. Of course, younger students are not yet facing memory loss. And the rapid proliferation of information has led to learning how to search, find, and evaluate the information available, certainly skills needed more today than yesterday, and likely even more so in the future.

At the same time, I've read on more than one occasion that people in careers that use their mind more have less incidence of Alzheimer's. Using one's mind "creatively" isn't the same as rote learning. Still, I wonder. That is, with respect to another disease, osteoporosis, it appears that prevention in one's youth is crucial, as stated by a NIH news release:

"Osteoporosis is a pediatric disease with geriatric consequences," said Duane Alexander, M.D., director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), sponsor of the Milk Matters calcium education campaign. "Preventing this and other bone diseases begins in childhood. With low calcium intake levels during these important bone growth periods, today's children and teens are certain to face a serious public health problem in the future."

Clearly, the stage for health--physical and mental--is set in our youth. This is true for the development of great chess players, mathematicians, and musicians (see The Expert Mind by Philip Ross). It would seem to be true of education in general. Just consider Matthew effects in reading (see ESL/EFL Learners Like Slow Readers). So, although I wouldn't want to return to a pedagogy focused on rote learning and repetitive drills, such as ALM, we should consider what sort of role rote learning might play in learning.

How do people develop fluency in a second language? A similar question might be, How do people develop expertise in a subject?

Last month, I posted on Philip Ross's review of The Expert Mind (Scientific American). Besides the 10-year rule on acquiring expertise (and I would add L2 fluency at native levels), the article also noted the problem of transfer:

Chess memory was thus shown to be even more specific than it had seemed, being tuned not merely to the game itself but to typical chess positions. These experiments corroborated earlier studies that had demonstrated convincingly that ability in one area tends not to transfer to another. American psychologist Edward Thorndike first noted this lack of transference over a century ago, when he showed that the study of Latin, for instance, did not improve command of English and that geometric proofs do not teach the use of logic in daily life.

Transfer is a problem. Although first-year composition is designed to prepare students for academic writing in other courses and eventually to their careers, the skills they acquire often, even usually, do not transfer in part because the concepts in FYC are not seen as relevant to other contexts. (See a few references below on the difficulty of writing transfer.) In tackling this problem, two approaches are helpful. One is making connections between class concepts and students' own societal practices. In addition to assignments that cross classroom boundaries, it is helpful for students to keep a journal in which they look for the presence of classroom concepts and practices outside the classroom.

The second approach is one of having a few concepts that are used in a variety of contexts and in interaction with one another lead to higher-level hybrid concepts. I talked about this approach in "Learning by remixing". (See also my paper "Building Blocks and Learning".) The ability to transfer skills and knowledge across domains is not automatic: Just like any other skill, it needs practice.

Some references related to problems in writing transfer:
Anson, Chris, & Forsberg, L. (1990). Moving beyond the academic community: Transitional stages in professional writing. _Written Communication_, 7, 200-231.
Carroll, Lee Ann. (2002). Rehearsing roles: how college students develop as writers. Carbondale: Southern Illinois Univ. Press.
Smit, David. (2004). _The end of composition studies_. Carbondale: Southern Illinois Univ. Press.

Alex Reid at "digital digs" writes on "the threat of the network". Alex states that teachers

continue to view their profession as one that will be founded on a discrete, unchanging body of information that they will acquire before graduating. We might all deride the notion of the teacher/professor reciting the same lectures and lessons plans year after year, but somehow this does not alter this belief that a degree will certify us once and for all as authorities. Sure, all these teacher-students recognize that they will gain experience as teachers, learn helpful tips along the way, and become better practitioners. But this development of practice is separated from the acquisition of authoritative knowledge.

And this faith exists in both K-12 and college faculty.

The threat of the network is the dissolution of this authority. The ongoing development of media and networks requires us to keep moving. It doesn't mean that what we've learned has no value; it means that it cannot establish us as authorities. We cannot imagine the classroom as resting upon a core body of knowledge. We are engaged in a technocultural shift that shakes the very foundations of epistemology: what began as a philosophical critique in theory now becomes a material condition (Hayles makes this argument, citing the birth of Netscape as the end of the "postmodern" era and the beginning of something new)

In many ways, I agree with all that Alex wrote, especially on the disconnect between formal education and the real world. Still, some points need to be clarified with respect to technological expertise and disciplinary expertise. Certainly, I don't consider myself as an authority on new technologies. But why should I? Technology and new media is not the goal of learning in my classes, although it is a byproduct. Rather, it supports learning certain concepts and practices of my subject of composition.

As a teacher of university composition for 14+ years, I've never thought about possessing an unchanging body of content knowledge. What I do consider not to change much over time are principles of rhetoric. For instance, when trying to communicate, especially persuasive communication, we use logic, appeal to emotions and values, and attempt to establish a credible ethos. Or coming from stasis theory, we might consider what are the facts, what are their nature, how do we evaluate them, and what should we do about them. These principles haven't changed in millenia and apply to cyberwriting as well as to print writing as well as to oral communication. So, although I do not consider myself to be an expert [perhaps I might in another 14+ years :) ], I would say that I have some "authority" in applying these principles and some "authority" in teaching the application of those principles to old and new media and networks or writing.

I accept that knowledge changes and that what we teach should change, too. But does that really mean that teachers, such as myself with many years of experience, have no more authority than our students with respect to our disciplines? I don't think that's what Alex is arguing, but in attempts to make education more relevant to students, I wonder about the hype associated with these new media and about the conflating of technological expertise with disciplinary knowledge.

Somewhat related posts:
Experts in the Learning Profession
Experts, Learning, and Networks
The Expert Mind

Philip Ross wrote a good review on The Expert Mind (Scientific American via elearningpost via elearnspace via Stephen's Edu_RSS). Some excepts:

The one thing that all expertise theorists agree on is that it takes enormous effort to build these structures in the mind. Simon coined a psychological law of his own, the 10-year rule, which states that it takes approximately a decade of heavy labor to master any field.

Ericsson argues that what matters is not experience per se but "effortful study," which entails continually tackling challenges that lie just beyond one's competence.

Thus, motivation appears to be a more important factor than innate ability in the development of expertise.

The preponderance of psychological evidence indicates that experts are made, not born. What is more, the demonstrated ability to turn a child quickly into an expert--in chess, music and a host of other subjects--sets a clear challenge before the schools. Can educators find ways to encourage students to engage in the kind of effortful study that will improve their reading and math skills?

"Effortful study" is related to ACT-R theory and in some ways just seems to be common sense. What seems to be missing in this article is the recognition that the 10-year rule when applied to reading and math equals 20 years, unless we double the total amount of "effortful study" in each and every day. Although we might argue that reading (especially reading) and math have greater application to more subjects, it would still mean that students would need to focus on a career subject at an early age in order to become an expert.

The ten-year rule also puts into better perspective why people take so long to acquire a second language. Language fluency requires expertise in the language. Add to that expertise in writing in a second language means adding even more time.

The article also notes that experts do not exist in abundance:

Without a demonstrably immense superiority in skill over the novice, there can be no true experts, only laypeople with imposing credentials. Such, alas, are all too common. Rigorous studies in the past two decades have shown that professional stock pickers invest no more successfully than amateurs, that noted connoisseurs distinguish wines hardly better than yokels, and that highly credentialed psychiatric therapists help patients no more than colleagues with less advanced degrees.

Some questions: Is this a problem for education? In general? That is, should people in general strive for expertise in their fields? Or simply to be competent? With respect to second language learning, how should the 10-year rule affect our approach to language teaching and our expectations about language learning?

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 Dictionary.com; 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.

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.