Experts and “Expertiness” in Education

In the middle of the first decade of the 21st century, an American comedian coined the term “truthiness” to capture an idea that individual or groups held as true although there was little evidence of the truth. That comedian applied this term to political situations and the satire was biting.

I believe we can apply the term“expertiness” to a group of people what ostensibly have expertise, but closer examination (and usually conversation) reveals they lack any understanding that can be called expertise. The frustration for many is that those with  political power often make decisions based on their expertness or they defer to those who rely on “expertiness” to make decisions.

First, we can recognize expertise based on certain characteristics:

Credentials and one’s relationship to credentials—All experts have credentials; they have completed studies under the mentorship of recognized experts in the field. When earning those credentials, an expert develops the tools that are used to practice in the field. An important part of these credentials is adopting the “best” practices in the field, but also, the ability to differentiate effective and efficient tools from those that are not. This preparation leads to experts who adapt to new practices and adopt new tools, but those choices involve the ability to make and justify judgements.

Experience and one’s relationship with that experience—Experts have negotiated the field for an extended time, and that career has been guided by utilizing the tools developed while earning a degree to find that which is objectively good. This experience allows experts to recognize situations and understand the nuances of the situations that are encountered in the field. 

Multiple perspectives—The expert approaches problems and situations from multiple perspectives. The expert teacher understands a lesson s understood differently by different students and can draw on (and build) experience by finding the variation on the lesson that reaches each. An expert leader will be able to articulate multiple explanations for a situation.

ChallengesIf a new idea is espoused (especially by one with “expertiness”) experts challenge the idea. They want to understand the theory behind it and the evidence for claims that are made about it. Contrary to myth, experts in education do tend to adapt and adopt in response to challenges that are successful. Lead with ideas that are sound and supported, and experts will follow.

“Expertiness” can be recognized with contrary observations in each of these areas:

One with expertness is likely to minimize the importance of credentials. To those individuals, a degree is “only a piece of paper.” Those who have completed degrees understand that the piece of paper is only the final layer on the experience. One who has studied for exams, written (and rewritten) papers, and made presentations understand that persistence is the real lesson of formal education.

One with “expertiness” has limited experience in both breadth and depth. The first year teacher who announced in the second faculty meeting of the year we should adopt a new methodology because “I student taught where they used it and it was the most amazing teaching experience of my life.” While I appreciate new ideas and am always energized by new teachers, the researcher in me objected “but it is your only teaching experience, and a single observation is not evidence.”

One with “expertiness” resolves all problem with a single intervention. They can neither conceive that one may not agree with their answer nor that it may not apply to a particular situation. Perhaps the most distressing aspect of “expertiness” is the inability to understand others have different experience. I once had a conversation with a woman who had been hired as a teachers’ aide in an elementary school. She was excited about her new adventure “helping kids read and learn math.” I was shocked with I asked her how she was going to react when she had a student who needed to sleep because she had been awake all night tending to sick sibling because her mother was either working or out at a bar. She was incredulous when I told her she would be working with kids who would have little access to food beyond what the school provided, “I provide healthy snacks to my kids, I don’t see why everyone can’t,” was her response and her demonstration of her “expertiness.”

One with “expertiness” perceives challenges to be motivated by the intention to disrupt to interfere. The true expert challenges to promote deeper understanding. They want to understand a proposal and they want the advocate to come to deeper understanding as well.

A quick war story to explain how “expertiness” can be deeply embedded in a school:

I was invited to interview for a position as a technology integration specialist at a school. During the interview, the committee comprising district and school leaders and educators asked me to give an example of how I had used a particular model in my practice. First, I answered their question. I described how using digital tools had changed the nature of interaction in a science classroom. I then deconstructed the model they had asked me about and explained how many scholars reject it as it neither predicts nor explains what we will observe. They politely thanked me for my answer. I decided at that point I did not want the job, but politely answered the rest of their questions without challenging their “expertiness.”