Difficulty and Expertise

Bransford’s chapter from How People Learn detailing the differences between the way novices and experts categorize, retrieve, and use information was fascinating to me not only as a teacher but also as a student interested in observing and improving my own mental functioning. While the piece did an admirable job of describing the differences, I was disappointed with the complete lack of advice that the authors provided for instructors who wanted to foster these habits of mind in their students (and, of course, for students desirous of developing the habits themselves). Surveying our offerings for the week, I began to consider the relationship between the habits discussed in this piece and the theoretical and practical approaches outlined in the other works. Though the Pope chapter struck me as the most pedagogically self-aware reading for the week, I felt that the Salvatori chapter on difficulty was, in fact, the best complement for Bransford.

In the first chapter of Elements (and Pleasures) of Difficulty, Salvatori and Donahue emphasize the value of struggle, claiming that it is only through the recognition of difficulty that we are able to develop the self-awareness and agency required to make the leap from “students” to “independent learners.”  It was the awareness-raising aspect of this chapter that most captured my attention: the fact that students who completed assignments like the Difficulty Paper were better able to think not only about a difficult text or problem but also their own response to that text or approach to that problem. The authors began to talk about how success bred confidence in learners and how that confidence was then applied to even more difficult texts and assignments.

An awareness of the mental processes used – both their own and those of experts – seems to lie at the heart of the readings by Bransford and Salvatori. The most immediate question to arise from their juxtaposition might be: How does exposure to expert thinking help students develop their own strategies for dealing with difficult material? A more successful dialogue between the two, however, might consider the student as more than just a learner encountering difficulty. He is, after all, almost certainly an expert in some field or another in his own right. For an instructor who acknowledges this fact, the question may undergo a fundamental shift: Can students actually become their own expert models through a heightened awareness of their thought processes or approaches when encountering tasks in which they demonstrate expertise?