Expertise, transparency, and wearing all your hats.

More than two decades ago Gordon Mallinson became the PhD supervisor of an opinionated, geeky, 19 year old who didn’t really know whether she actually wanted to go into research or ditch it all for intermediate school teaching. Then came a progression through roles of mentor, discusser-of-green-(coloured)-cars-and-the-evils-which-befall-them, confidant, colleague, until – somewhere and somehow along the way – we ended up as all of the above, with a good dollop of friendship thrown in too.

At his funeral earlier this year his grand-daughters spoke of how Granddad told them stories about solar-powered robots. His university colleagues remembered shared holidays and other adventures. I recalled his many stories about what his daughters were doing in far away lands, and, on actually meeting his family afterwards, was a little shocked that they already knew who I was: Gordon’s daughters remembered and recognised me (by name only) their father’s student from twenty years before. I’m sure we’d all like to believe ourselves to be memorable, but this was something more. And nothing to do with me.

No, this situation was to do with Gordon looking at the “work hat”, the “engineer hat”, the “academic hat”, the “husband, father, grandfather hat” and decided that life would be so much better if they could all be worn at once. And I think he’s right. I think that he had more of an effect because he wore them all at once. His life was connected, not merely busy. He was transparent, not merely colourful. Though it may have seemed confused and indirect at times, this concept of connection and transfer between (in others) the disconnected parts of life made him more real, more influential, and more effective in each of those parts. Gordon was, in the language which I’ll explain below, an expert human.

Expertise is a quality related to how information is stored and retrieved in our minds. It’s not about the quantity of data, but how they’re organised, how they’re connected; which in turn influences how and when they’re available for use. Before getting too abstract (or arguing about the plurality of “data”), let’s have an example.

Have you ever moved to a new country, a new city, a new neighbourhood, and, during your newness, known one and only one way to get the supermarket? One and only one way to get to the bank, or the motorway, or whatever? If there was heavy traffic on that route you’d just sit in it; you couldn’t go around by using another road, because as far as you’re concerned, there are no other roads. During that time of newness, you are – literally – a novice. The connections between places in your mind are rote, one-directional, linear. There are no alternatives.

Six months later, perhaps you know a few shortcuts. Perhaps you’ve found another supermarket a little closer to home, or perhaps you’ve discovered a much better way of getting to the first one. The number of places hasn’t changed, but the way in which they’re connected in your mind has. Now when there’s a traffic jam you’re able to drive around it and find another way.

This is the difference between novice knowledge and expert knowledge: the structure in which it’s stored; the how of its connections. The novice has a linear, directional structure: it’s neat, it’s ordered, so that B always follows A and precedes C, D and E. The expert may hold the same amount of information, but can leap from D to A via B and C, or through myriad other routes. Experts use a glorious birds-nest of non-sequential and hard-to-define connections to map their knowledge space. Novices just use that same old way to get to the supermarket.

So what?

I could bring this up to highlight what I believe is the biggest flaw in modern tertiary education. (Universities are great machines for producing polished, groomed, and highly edumacated novices when what’s really needed are baby, newly-hatched, fledgling experts.) But this post is not about uni-bashing. I could bring this up to talk about how teachers and educators can prepare their students for fledgeling expertise, perhaps using intuition and surprise in their teaching, but that’s another story*.

* My PGDipLATHE dissertation Seeing and Believing: Intuition and visualisation in undergraduate engineering can be found here.

No, here, all I want to do is tell you about a realisation I had this week about expertise itself. In all my highfaluting reading and thinking and trying stuff out to encourage the development expertise in learners, I have completely missed the point. Humbling, yeah, but also kinda exciting too. I had been thinking like a novice about the subject of expertise. If it’s true that the expert has something fundamentally different from and better than the novice, then can we apply that same principle to the entirety of life, not just a professional domain?

Can the patience learned teaching beginner recorder to five-year olds be shown to truculent academics? Can persistence learning to skateboard become tenacity in business? Would your colleagues relate to you more if they knew how hard your weekend was? Is it possible to so weave our experiences and principles that, instead of separateness and discretion, they are allowed to form the whole, the entire, the expert version of ourselves?

Explore your neighbourhoods. Take the new road. Discover places and people and highways and byways you didn’t know existed. Get lost. Find. Connect. And – most importantly – wear all your hats.

One thought on “Expertise, transparency, and wearing all your hats.

  1. I like this idea very much. I have a similar theory in that if we all think we are at our limit at 70% (when most people think they are done), we should look at the extra 30% experts achieve and study what made them push through. This could be a toddler learning to walk early or a Doctor looking outside the box for a cure that is deemed impossible’. I agree with you that the professional world should not be looked at exclusively for this progressive achievements.

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