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Why Experts Can Struggle to Teach Novices

This week in our Slack group on teaching, there was an interesting discussion about expertise and the amount of time needed to prep for instruction. I mentioned something that I recalled reading: that experts can be less effective in teaching novices because often the expert skips cognitive steps that the novice learner needs to understand.  I thought I'd dig into this a little more today on the blog.

The fact is novices and experts learn very differently.  The major reason for this is that experts not only know a lot about their chosen discipline, but they understand how that discipline is organized. As such, what has a clear structure to the expert is a jumbled set of unorganized information to the novice.  The information presented to novices "are more or less random data points."[1]  In contrast, when the expert learns something new in her area of expertise, she just plugs it into the knowledge structure that already exists in her long-term memory. Because the new information fits into already-existing knowledge structures, it is easy to retrieve next time she needs it.

What often occurs when experts begin teaching novices is not sufficiently explaining how the different pieces fit together.  Expertise can inadvertently skip cognitive steps students need to know as they explain new information.  Arguably, this means that taking time to prep--focusing on pedagogical content knowledge--is even more important for subject specialists.  Less experienced teachers or those with less expertise are likely more aware of the learning difficulties inherent in learning a topic. These teachers may need to prep just as much for other reasons--newness to teaching, lack of familiarity with the subject area, etc--but they are less distant from the challenges inherent to learning new information than the expert.

This is especially true in disciplines involving problem solving.  The ability experts have to engage in in-depth analysis and problem-solving is tied to their well-organized knowledge structures.  They are able to recognize patterns in information in a way that novices cannot.  We have to teach novice student learners to recognize these patterns, a skill that can only be gained by repeated retrieval of information until identifying patterns becomes fluent.

In teaching law students legal research, especially 1Ls who are first doing legal research and analysis, it is easy for legal research instructors to fall into this trap.  I'll often think I could teach the four-step process we use as a scaffolding technique to teach legal research with no prep because it is so ingrained in my knowledge structures in my brain.  But that would be a huge mistake--in nearly every 1L class, I come to a point where a student asks a question that seemed obvious to me, the expert, but was not obvious to the student.  And I usually find that if one student has a question, usually at least a few other students have that same question.  Taking time to break my teaching down into small enough steps in my mind prior to class helps me to avoid taking these leaps and helps me best serve my novice learners.

For much more on how experts and novices think and learn differently, see Chapter 2 of How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School: Expanded Edition (2000).

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