Check Those Blind Spots before Teaching!

16 Apr Chess play image; taken from http://s219.photobucket.com/user/jdstripes/media/chess/Jussupow03.jpg.html

Do you suffer from the curse of knowledge?

If you are an expert in your field, the answer to will likely be yes.  The curse of knowledge is a phrase coined by Chip and Dan Heath in Made to Stick to refer to the difficulty an expert has remembering what it is like to be a novice. They explain, “It becomes difficult for us to share our knowledge with others, because we can’t readily re-create our listeners’ state of mind.”  [For earlier posts invoking Made to Stick, follow this search string: http://uminntilt.wordpress.com/?s=heath+&submit=Search.]

Think about learning to drive a car.  Initially every step required your conscious attention: checking the speedometer, looking in the rear view mirror, using your turn indicator.  After years of experience driving, however, you are able to do all of these things unconsciously (sometimes referred to as unconscious competence).  If someone tells you to turn right, you don’t have to think first – for example – about where the turn indicator is before you signal your turn. 

In the book How Learning Works this phenomenon is referred to as expert blind spot, where “expert instructors are blind to the learning needs of their novice students.”  The example used to illustrate this is an experienced chef providing directions to a novice: “sauté until done”, “add spices to taste.”  The expert knows exactly what “done” looks like for sautéed onions, or what the correct “taste” should be when adding spices to a soup.  The novice may not.  Like the chef, chances are we as instructors have developed our own expert blind spots when it comes to discerning or anticipating what our students don’t know.

Classic chess studies by Adriaan de Groot and later by William Chase and Herbert Simon in the 1970s helps illustrate expert blind spot.  These studies compare beginning chess players to master chess players in their ability to memorize chess pieces on a chess board.  Chess boards were set up in mid-play and participants were asked to look at them briefly and then recall as many pieces and their positions as they could.  The beginners were able to correctly identify about five pieces.  The experts were able to correctly identify about 15 pieces in the same amount of time.  It’s not simply that the experts had a better memory than the novices, it was that they were able to organize the pieces into meaningful wholes in a way the novices could not. [See also the “invisible gorilla blogpost on this point: http://theinvisiblegorilla.com/blog/2012/02/15/how-experts-recall-chess-positions/.]   

An arrangement of pawns, for instance, represented a classic move to the expert that has a name (let’s say the Lotus Pawn Configuration – I’m totally making that name up!).  Lotus Pawn Configuration is all they need to remember, because in their experience they know what the positions of the individual pieces that comprise the configuration.  But the novices didn’t notice that pattern; therefore, novice players needed to memorize every single pawn’s position individually.  Like a master chess player, we – the teachers – have built up our own stores of patterns of recognition over the years.  The novice chess player – our students – have to consciously consider each individual idea or skill in order to see, build, remember that larger pattern. 

What happens if we take away the advantage and compare experts to the novices?   That’s exactly what was tested in the next phase of the chess study.  Random boards were set up, with no relation to an actual chess game.  In this case the novices and the experts both remembered about the same number of chess pieces.  In fact, the novices did a little better than the experts!  The idea is that the experts were trying to find patterns where none existed and it slowed them down.

So as teachers, what can we do to overcome our expert blind spots?  Some suggestions:

  • Think like a novice – Try to recall what it was like for you as you were beginning to learn your field, where did you struggle?  Where do your students typically struggle?  Are there some concepts that could be broken down into smaller component pieces for your students?
  • Model how you chunk or organize information – Think out loud how you would approach a problem in your field.  Demonstrate to your students how you would tackle a problem. 
  • Provide scaffolding for your students – Scaffolding, or breaking down a complex project into smaller pieces with support, allows you to provide your students with feedback early in the process and also helps prevent student procrastination.  It also provides you with the opportunity to demonstrate how an expert would divide up a complex task.
  • Give them practice – The more times a student practices a new skill, the more likely they can begin to move towards unconscious competence.  Allowing them to practice with feedback gives them the opportunity to know what “right” feels like.
  • Don’t expect students will be able to do things as quickly as you can – When estimating how long it will take for a student to perform a task or understand a concept, you are not necessarily a good standard to measure against.  It will probably take novices longer, much longer, to accomplish a task in your area of expertise than you.  Build that time into your learning activities.

Ultimately, I think one of our major goals as teachers is to show students how to integrate the ideas, concepts, and skills of our field into a meaningful whole that will be of use for approaching future challenges.  Being mindful of our expert blind spot will help us design effective learning experiences for our students to do just that.

Resources

Heath, C. and Heath, D. (2008). Made to Stick, Random House, New York .

Ambrose, S., Bridges, M.,  DiPietro, M., Lovett, M., and Norman, M. (2010). How Learning Works, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, CA.

Chase, W. G., & Simon, H. A. (1973).  Perception in chess.  Cognitive Psychology, 4, 55-81.

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