Surpassing Ourselves: An Inquiry Into the Nature and Implications of Expertise Paperback – Oct 19 1993
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About the Author
Bereiter is professor at the ontario Institute for Studies in Education. He is a member of the Center for Applied Cognitive Science.
Scardamalia is professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. She is heads the Center for Applied Cognitive Science.
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A lot of my enjoyment of this book is admittedly because I had come to many of the same conclusions independently and felt reassured to see the same ideas expressed so eloquently. I do think they get a lot right here and that their core concepts have only become more plausible and more important over time since the book was written.
The driving themes of this book all revolve around a single idea: an expanded concept of expertise. I think this is a bigger leap of faith for most people than is at first obvious. Expertise has come to have very strong connotations in popular culture with specialization and elitism, which is exactly the opposite of the message in this book. The book is about how everyone can benefit from what we know about expertise, and how necessary it is to have schools and a broader culture suited to solving increasingly complex and difficult problems. It is not at all about specialization or elitism.
The disconnect between the expanded concept of expertise and the popular is not just about the politics and economics of specialization. It is also about how the research on expertise is interpreted. For practical reasons, most expertise research has focused on the difference between novices and high performers in a given domain and how much time and deliberate practice is required to make that journey. The authors recognize that body of work and draw from it, but they also recognize, critically, that there are other ways to look at expertise. We can also compare experienced high performers with experienced low performers. And we can compare novices who later become high performers with novices who later become experienced low performers.
The authors expand and elaborate on the concept of expertise in several ways:
1. Think of expertise not as an end state of ability but as an ongoing process of knowledge acquisition at increasingly high levels of performance rather than as an end state of high performing relative to other people.
2. Think of the expertise process as being a cycle of learning at one level until it requires less cognitive effort, and then reinvesting the surplus cognitive effort in reformulating the questions and addressing them at a higher level of difficulty and complexity, always working at the edge of our current ability.
3. Think of experts as people who actively engage in the process of expertise rather than as high performers, so we have expert (or "expert-like") learners even when they are novices.
4. Think of expertise as something that is done by groups as well as individuals.
5. Think of creativity as a particular kind of expertise, where we take greater leaps and risks in working at the edge of our competence and in building and drawing on our knowledge of what options are most promising.
6. Think of wisdom as another particular kind of expertise, drawing on our knowledge of human beings and what sorts of things are most promising in human lives.
The result is a vision of individual ability, education, and culture that is profoundly progressive in what it takes on, nothing less than creating the conditions for every student and citizen to either become or participate constructively with expert learners, to everyone's benefit, resulting in a broader culture of problem solving rather than one of stagnant political and philosophical stances. This is a 1993 vision for the challenges that beset us today, asking us to make better use of technology we already have available at this point, even though we did not at the time the book was written.
The authors recognize that even in 1993, most of these ideas were known and accepted by many educators, but they were very rarely put into practice effectively. The authors theorize that this is because of how self-sustaining the usual educational systems and in comparison how much constant vigilance and effort is required on the part of teachers and administrators to maintain a different sort of environment, what they call a "second order environment" that sustains the process of expertise for both individuals and groups.
One valuable prototype for second order environments is the research community, in which shared objectives and various intrinsic social rewards drive the team members to work together to increasingly more knowledge of their subject and tacking increasingly more difficult problems.
Compare this self-sustaining, actively learning expertise process with the simple use of technology to connect people to share knowledge. The difference is profound. Simply using technology to connect more people has some limited value, but it is a long way from the expertise process. The authors predicted this long before the "Personal Learning Network" became a promising but so often unimpressive reality. The gap between connecting people and knowledge bases, and people actually striving to make increasingly better use of available resources can be huge, and that is what the authors of "Surpassing Ourselves" identified in 1993, the way we use the technology and the way we communicate is critical as well, we can't just connect ourselves and our databases and expect to use all that potential effectively without facilitating and maintaining the process of expertise.
Does the term "expertise" itself limit our ability to make better use of these ideas because of its negative connotations? The authors point out how terms like "excellence" and "quality" have often been used for essentially the same idea, but those have their own misleading or easily abused connotations and limitations as well, and they lack the depth of individual psychological research found in the expertise literature. In the end, what we call it doesn't matter so much as whether we understand how it happens and how to create the conditions for supporting it.
The books of David N. Perkins offer various proposals with a very similar and consistent vision to the one in "Surpassing Ourselves." "Outsmarting IQ" for example offers an expanded vision of individual expertise that in some ways builds on that of "Surpassing Ourselves" by providing a model of expertise as the process of navigating intersecting realms of knowledge, using the principles of far transfer to generalize expertise among domains and identifying some of the conditions for acquiring it. "Smart Schools" suggests a way to transform education along these lines. "Making Learning Whole" looks in more detail at the common process of expert learning at all levels of ability.
Outsmarting IQ: The Emerging Science of Learnable Intelligence
Making Learning Whole: How Seven Principles of Teaching Can Transform Education
In "Rethinking Expertise," Harry Collins looks more specifically at the social dimension of knowledge underlying the group process of expertise.
In "Dialogue Gap," Peter Nixon elaborates on what is distinct about the sort of communication that brings out the different knowledge of each individual and in so doing facilitates what "Surpassing Ourselves" considers the group process of expertise, as opposed to simply arguing or conversing on a less constructive level.
Dialogue Gap: Why Communication Isnt Enough and What We Can Do About It, Fast
Maria Konnikova's "Mastermind" explores the role of a specific critical factor in individual process of expertise allowing us to work continually at the edge of our current ability. This is the ability to focus attention in a particular way in order to actively engage our thinking rather than just passively observe the same things in the same way. "Surpassing Ourselves" describes this only in the abstract as actively engaging higher levels of problems, but the concept of mindfulness offers a possible way of modeling the process in more detail.
Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes
Scott Barry Kaufman's "Ungifted" is an important manifesto for stimulating the growth of human mental abilities that explains in detail the limitations of the usual ways of recognizing ability and potential while being very true to what we do already know. Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined
As Bereiter and Scardamalia explain, we need to move beyond the idea that expertise is a commodity one "gets" with a degree and then is able to rest on that expert label for one's career. Real expertise moves beyond what is known - into the dark area of the unknown - where one grasps in darkness at completely new insights, innovation, invention.
Until we create an educational system that gives students permission to play in this field of the unknown - where failure is an acceptable and organic part of the landscape, they will never know the liberating power of unfettered romps in the realm of messy, inventive expertise. This is a must-read for any school reformer - or life-long learner needing encouragement to push themselves to discover their full potential.
This book does have important ramifications for education, especially the concept of 'idea improvement' through a recursive process, but those ramifications are best spelled out in Bereiter's Education and Mind in the Knowledge Age. This is a great popular science work and provides good background for thinking about education, but it would not be specifically helpful for most educators in designing instruction.
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