Dividing individuals into groups based on a multiple choice questionnaire is dangerous. The grouping of experts and novices may however be a good way to differentiate learning ‘styles’.
Style over substance
We’re always looking for a formula aren’t we? A shortcut to help us deliver on our aims quickly and efficiently. Learning styles mean well but shouldn’t be a dogmatic, go to rule. If you’ve ever taken an interest in how we learn or attempted to design or deliver some learning material, a quick Google search or short course will undoubtedly present you with learning styles. These are ways of grouping people into the different ways they learn, according to Honey and Mumford’s learning styles we fall into one of four groups, activists, pragmatists, theorists and reflectors. Proponents of VARK say that we are either visual, auditory, read or kinesthetic in the way that we learn. These theories say that an auditory learner learns best when the content is delivered using audio. Describing to the auditory learner where Italy is on the map without looking at a map is just unkind if you ask me. As I stated at the start, these models are well intentioned and possibly even useful as an introduction to learning but there is now much debate and challenge. Putting someone in a box of only learning by visual materials is not a useful label in my view. If we are to use these labels at all, flip it around and label the content as being something that is visual or auditory in nature. The way we interact with learning materials is much more complex. The risk with anything that labels an individual as one ‘type’ can be dangerous, especially in the wrong hands.
The expert and the novice
If we are searching for that magic formula and guidance, one grouping that I recommend using when thinking about delivering learning is the novice versus expert paradigm.
In the mid 20th century, a puzzle that psychologists were looking to solve was how do experts solve problems in comparison to novices. The common sense answer was that experts have more knowledge than novices – nothing too enlightening there! Much research followed. Finding out how novices become experts in a particular domain has its obvious worth to many fields. Chase and Simon (1973) found that experts organised their knowledge better. They could retrieve that knowledge when faced with a problem. Novices may have come across similar problems in the past but the way they had organised packets of knowledge wasn’t accessible enough. How can we then use this to design learning differently for novices and experts? Novices need more interactivity. They need to get involved with content and do stuff with it, solve problems, come up with new ideas which encourages knowledge to be stored with more connections within schemas. Experts then, need less direction and support. Providing experts with new knowledge could be enough for them to make those connections themselves. Role plays and other activities probably aren’t needed.
In the 1980s, Larkin et al moved this work on to try and differentiate between experts and novices. Two different approaches to problem solving was found. Experts used forward strategy, taking all of the information in the problem statement and working forwards to come up with a solution. Novices it was found use a more backwards or means-ends strategy or even trial and error learning. Again, here we can see that experts can take information and work with it, interacting with existing stored knowledge to move forward to a solution. The novice meanwhile is looking towards the end, what a solution might look like and working backwards or trying things out to see if they work. Here, the novices again need that extra support, those activities to reorganise and mix up those connections of knowledge – the schemas.
So we know a little more on the difference between the expert and the novice, but how does a novice become and expert? Bad news I’m afraid, practice makes perfect! 10,000 hours of practice to become really good says Malcolm Gladwell in his famous book, Outliers. Of course many who are learners or teachers aren’t making experts of everyone but we can take from this the fact that learning and development of knowledge and skill doesn’t happen just in formal learning environments. Theories such as 70:20:10 show the importance of practice and social learning, alongside the more formal.
Strategies to improve learning
Of course strategies to give feedback, support and encouragement through a variety of activities help enormously but we need to put in the hard yards. Green and Gilhooly (1990) looked at strategies for more efficient practice and found that learning by doing was more efficient alongside acting on error messages and feedback rather than a trial and error approach. Sweller et al (1988) looked at how the rate of skill acquisition could be enhanced. They looked at how novices used means-end or goal based strategies, by looking too far ahead to the final solution, novices can face cognitive overload in this scenario. Breaking down the problem into smaller chunks removed the means-end and goal based strategy and the subsequent cognitive overload.
So we can take away from the expert novice paradigm:
- Novices need more help than experts to acquire knowledge and skills.
- Practice and working at knowledge and skill takes time but we can use strategies to speed this up.
- Break down tasks for novices, building up to a bigger task to avoid means-end approaches and cognitive overload.
- Learning and the practice needed doesn’t just happen in formal environments.
- We can learn how experts become experts, if we can capture data on our best performers we can attempt to share this best practice with others. Big data and the internet of things may be buzz words but they may provide the data and evidence to help us all learn more efficiently.
- Ask about the proficiency of your learners in the domain that you are delivering. It should guide everything that you do.
- An expert isn’t a universal expert, moving to a totally different domain makes them a novice again. Of course if an expert is learning about a closely related field they may need a different strategy but this should always be identified and be used to inform the learning strategy.