When I was in high school, my chemistry teacher once barked at me to “answer what I mean, not what I say!” Fortunately, this did not extend to qualitative analyses in the afternoon lab sessions, when directions and explanations were easier to understand.
This past week, our new faculty seminar group took a look at this misalignment of communication between experts and novices as we discussed Dan Willingham’s chapter on getting students “to think like experts.” We watched two YouTube clips of the infamous Sheldon Cooper at work in “The Big Bang Theory” for context:
Sheldon Attempts to Give a Guest Lecture:
Sheldon Attempts to Teach Physics to Penny:
with Willingham’s “Implications for the Classroom” at the end of chapter 7 in mind. In viewing both videos, we decided that Sheldon does have a sense of the difference between novices and experts: his teaching challenge is to understand how to communicate with novices so that they can learn rather than shaming them with his superior grasp of context and detail. Expertise does not always translate to great teaching!
We then took apart the chapter to examine what Willingham argues that experts “do,” as well as what resources experts have at their disposal that differ from novices. Experts have more capacity in working memory than novices because experts have automated much of the base knowledge needed for effective problem solving. This extended working memory allows experts to consider multiple alternatives and to rely on long-term memory to indicate which details are important and which can be safely ignored or discarded. Experts also transfer their problem solving skills (remember that Willingham equates thinking with problem solving) more easily than novices, largely because their working memories are not as concerned with acquiring surface details in order to resolve challenges.
In terms of teaching, we suggested that faculty quiz their students early to uncover students’ awareness of context and significance in relation to the material being covered. When teachers follow this assessment with an explanation of how students will learn to distinguish between the important and unimportant details of problems as well as the reasons that transferring skills between contexts are relevant to success in the discipline, students are primed to learn and to practice more effectively.
And, practice is what experts do, Willingham reminds his readers. Whether it is 10 years or 10,000 hours (according to Malcolm Gladwell), the time spent practicing a discipline is essential to mastery of that discipline. Our expectations of what students can learn in an academic term need to be realistic: we don’t have 10 years to offer in four and half months. We have 15 weeks to make a dent in what we hope will be a lifetime of learning. Can we then give ourselves and our students a bit more patience and perhaps more modeling of our own acquisition of knowledge?