Can students think like experts?

Which of the following makes for a good history lesson about the underground railroad?

  1. A traditional lesson in which the background of the underground railroad is presented, major players in the story are introduced, an explanation is given of the politics of the time, and the conditions that escaped slaves went through to get to freedom are presented.
  2. For a fourth-grade classroom, have the students bake biscuits, which were a common staple on the underground railroad, in order to gain an understanding of what runaway slaves did and ate.
  3. Give tenth-grade students original documents from the underground railroad that they use to draw and debate conclusions about the underground railroad (like real historians do).
  4. Run a class discussion in which students are asked questions to elicit their understanding of life within the underground railroad.  How did runaway slaves obtain food?  How were they able to prepare it?  How were they able to pay for it?  What might the consequences have been for someone who housed runaway slaves?  And so forth.

Easy answers: (1) sounds fine if you need to transmit lots of knowledge, but boring.  A good lecture will communicate facts as well as connections between those facts, and it will build important neural connections to help students remember and process data.

Option (2) is nonsense.  The students will spend their time thinking about measuring flour, not the underground railroad.  (Math teachers, take note—this happens in your classes, too!)

Option (4) is great.  It prompts students to reflect on what they have learned and it leads them to make connections between topics.  By giving each of these items real thought and relating it to other facts they might know about the time period, their overall understanding will be greatly strengthened.

In his fascinating book Why Don’t Students Like School?, Daniel Willingham argues that option (3) is a mistake unless your goal is building student excitement.  But… surely not, you say!  Is this not what real historians do?  If history class was about analyzing real documents, would that not more deeply engage students’ minds and show them what the field was really like?

Not so, says Willingham.  This kind of exercise is asking students to think like experts.  However, he says, the cognition of experts is fundamentally different from non-experts.  Here’s how:

  • Experts think in terms of functions or deep structure, while novices think in terms of surface features.  For example, suppose you ask novices and expert chess players to memorize a chess board.  When replacing the pieces on the board, the novices will put them down in clumps organized by location on the board.  Expert players will put them down in clumps organized by function—pieces that are threatening each other will go down all at once, even if on different ends of the board.
  • Experts’ focus on deep structure allows them to ignore unimportant details and immediately see the useful information.
  • Experts have procedures that are essentially automatic from repeated practice, so they can execute those procedures/thought patterns without the mental overhead of novices.

Willingham then notes that becoming an expert takes 10,000(ish) hours of practice.  He reflects on judging science fairs where students churn out lots of basically useless science experiments, with huge flaws in experimental design of which they are blissfully unaware.  Besides, for this particular history exercise, students don’t have nearly the background knowledge to make useful connections; they’ll never get into the deep structure, and will instead be stuck on surface features of the documents.

I’ve been wrestling with the idea that we should not challenge students to think like experts.

On the one hand, when I look at the classes I teach, I don’t generally challenge students to think like experts.  I’m not asking students to discover new mathematics in my math classes, and with good reason—I don’t think most discovery problems encourage reflective practice.

On the other hand, I don’t believe the 10,000 hours claim, because it fails to look at why someone would spend 10,000 hours playing chess.  They will probably only do so because they see some of the deep structure of the game, which inspires them to want to explore it further.  Someone’s decision to pursue a topic is a complicated interplay of factors.  To become an expert, you need to feel like you’re already on that track.  So if we want students to pursue expertise, we must challenge them sometimes to achieve it and give them experience with how an expert thinks.

Also, the science fair conclusion seems totally wrong to me.  Just because students do not do something well does not mean that there isn’t value in doing it!

Which leads me to conclude: challenge students to think like experts, but rarely and judiciously.  Option (3) is appropriate, but only after students have built up enough background knowledge of the underground railroad that they have connections and context to draw on.  If you can build up enough experience with that aspect of history that students can work with the documents, then they might be able to draw some new conclusions and learn from the experience.  But most of the class can’t be structured this way, or the basic connections students require to set documents in context will never have time to develop.

Author: danzaharopol

I am a math geek. I love doing math, learning math, and teaching math. Nothing excites me more than working with young people who are discovering new and amazing things. Professionally, I founded Bridge to Enter Advanced Mathematics (BEAM), a program that makes it possible for low-income and underserved students to become scientists, mathematicians, engineers, and programmers. That's where I spend most of my time geeking out about math these days. Prior to BEAM, I was a math graduate student (studying algebraic topology) and taught math in places all around the country. I also co-founded and served as the founding CEO of Learning Unlimited, an organization that mentors college students to create enrichment programs for local middle and high school students. In my non-existent free time, I love board games, great plays, frisbee, and reading.

3 thoughts on “Can students think like experts?”

  1. I think #3 is a great thing to do as a class, but a really bad way to teach about the underground railroad. Understanding how historians (or experts in general) think and work is important. It improves critical thinking skills, let’s students decide a little better if they want to be experts, and creates an appreciation of experts and why expert opinions should (usually) be deferred to by non-experts. (The last is I think under-appreciated and very important in broader society – see debates over evolution and global warming, for example.) That’s all an important part of history class. But it’s also important to actually communicate information about history, and #3 is a very bad way of doing that. I would advocate picking one topic each year that you’re going to spend a ton of time on and do #3-like things with, and then not do it the rest of the year. (Similarly, science classes should have kids do experiments, but shouldn’t expect that to be the main way they actually learn facts about science.)

  2. Great post. I’ve always wondered how one recognizes a student who has started to cross into this expert range (does it happen in the 10,000+1 hour :-) ? I suppose some ratio of methods 3 and 4 would be most effective while paying close attention to the students with a talent and affinity developing around 3.

    1. Perhaps one way to recognize the transition to expert is to see how they react to math problems very different from the type they’re used to? If they’re able to quickly pinpoint the salient features, then they’re getting there!

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