Wednesday’s Wisdom #2: Expertise

Wednesday’s Wisdom is a weekly blog post about learning and leading, using the half-way point to assess what has come before, and to reflect on what to pursue and improve.

It whirs noisily all day, but never springs into life. My boiler, that is. It has malfunctioned again, an annual tradition that mocks the combination of cold weather and young children. Our ‘protection plan’ means that we are entitled to engineer call outs, and they arrive and leave, with an attempted fix that rarely yields success. ‘I don’t know that error code, it’s not in the manual’ is the fateful utterance that pushes my panic button, as the engineer picks up the phone and calls what I imagine to be the promised land of boiler troubleshooting, manned by an ancient sensei who has knowledge stretching far beyond the realms of the manual.

And that’s the business model. They save money by hiring cheap, inexperienced engineers who are trained to read the manual and call boiler Yoda, a lone saviour who fends off thousands of daily queries from their panic-stricken charges. Somehow, I don’t think ‘it’s not in the manual’ would work if my Year 11 class asked me about a Macbeth essay question that hadn’t appeared in a past paper. I suppose I could call Stuart Pryke or Amy Staniforth?

Aside from my shivering children, what are the bigger issues at stake, here? Well, I empathise with the engineers of said company. Is there a way to feel less empowered than to have low domain expertise in your role? Or to have to defer to a gatekeeper’s advice for most tasks that you do? Where is the incentive to learn more, develop practice, and expand knowledge, if one person is hording expertise?

Developing expertise in a subject is a truly remarkable and empowering journey, and I use the latter term as I’m not sure we become a ‘complete’ expert. I don’t believe there to be an endgame, and indeed, why would one want to finish learning? Developing expertise empowers you to draw upon background knowledge to think around challenges, apply a range of ideas to find a solution, and trust the processes that you have cultivated through your experience.

When I revisit Daniel Willingham’s Why Don’t Students like School?, my mind is urging the boiler engineers to have a better grasp of their field. Willingham (p131-132, 2009) uses the analogy of Hugh Laurie’s House, the expert doctor with a mercurial style, to highlight what experts possess, such as retrieving precise memories with speed and accuracy, following the right processes even if they lead to mistakes (which often, in turn, lead to the correct answer), and applying their knowledge and experience to separate the wheat from the chaff. Greg Ashman’s recent blog about critical thinking proposes, similar to Willingham’s view, that critical thinking is not a ‘general capability’ that can be practised, and rather ‘it requires underpinning knowledge to that particular context in which thinking is to be deployed’. My engineer can’t fiddle with the boiler, or experiment beyond protocol to try to understand the nuances of the issue, without the underpinning knowledge.

Returning to the point of this post, my first question is to ask whether or not, in education and beyond, we place enough stock in subject experts? In a recent blog, David Preece queries how there is often little in the way of progression routes or status for those honing their subject expertise; he applies the term ‘hobby activities’ to describe how exam marking, attending conferences, or working with subject associations, can be perceived in schools. Do teachers have to detach themselves from the ‘identity’, as he puts it, of their subject, in order to progress?

Anecdotally, a friend of mine in the fitness industry explained that with greater expertise comes greater autonomy and status in his company, creating (healthy) competition among staff to learn more. Another friend, an affable point of contact for large accounts at an IT security firm, said that the IT experts were almost derided as ethereal beings on a different floor of the office. ‘They’ll sort it, they know everything’. Respected but not revered. Perhaps every industry has a different take on the role or value of expertise. Ask my boiler.

Secondly, we need subject specialists, but we don’t all need to be one. When I was a Head of English looking to introduce Paradise Lost Books 9 and 10, with the new A-Level specification on the horizon, I gave myself two years of preparation time. I lived and breathed that text, and Milton’s life, before I felt that I’d acquired the necessary amount of knowledge to plan the unit.  That was quite a feeling, and while my knowledge is diminishing now that I don’t teach Milton (I haven’t fully come to terms with this yet), it was one of my most empowering experiences as an English teacher. Roles change, and I moved into a Leadership Team position. It took me time to acclimatise to not being an expert in every area that I was responsible for. I am learning to ask the right questions, take an active interest, and put trust in the work of experts, be that a SENCO, ELSA, or Head of Maths. But it’s not always easy to acknowledge that you don’t know things, or to make decisions about areas in which you can’t match someone else’s knowledge.

Jurgen Klopp, manager of Liverpool FC, has a healthy attitude regarding the expertise of those around him. ‘My confidence is big enough that I can really let people grow next to me, that’s no problem. I need experts around me. That’s what leadership is – you have strong people around you with better knowledge than you; you don’t act like you know everything; be ready to admit, “I have no clue in the moment, give me a couple of minutes and then I will have a clue probably.”’

In Maria Konnikova’s excellent The Biggest Bluff, she learns how to play poker at an elite level, spending thousands of hours reading, watching, and playing; yet, in the early stages of her career she is overwhelmed by how often her lack of knowledge and experience are exposed. She also suffers from the Dunning-Kruger effect when she had some success; it’s tempting to get carried away with how much we think we know, and often we don’t realise how little we know or understand until we are tested or make a mistake. I’m not foolish enough to think I can avoid the Dunning-Kruger effect myself, and nor should you be, but my mantra is to assume I know virtually nothing, and keep asking questions and reading and thinking, until… well, there’s no endgame, as I mentioned earlier. I nearly didn’t publish this blog due to the sheer vastness of what I don’t know about knowledge and expertise. I think that’s a good sign.

To avoid becoming aimless in my desert wanderings, here are two takeaways prompted by my boiler saga:

  1. Developing expertise is an empowering, fascinating, addictive and thoroughly laudable exploit, and should be celebrated and given the status it deserves. Graham Chisnell’s Talent Pathways article in Impact, outlines how his multi-academy trust created progression pathways for staff, so that they can specialise in different areas, from subject development, research, leadership, and many others. The challenge for us is how we take action so that celebration of expertise isn’t a gesture, but embedded into organisational culture and progression.
  2. We need to put trust in experts around us, encourage their growing knowledge, and invest in them. Firstly, don’t let fledgling or seasoned experts stand still – provide time and resources to continue developing their expertise. But above all, give them the prominence to feel valued and utilised in a manner befitting their expertise. If leaders like Jurgen Klopp are open to the input from experts around them, they are more likely to be given advice and information that is not filtered through a lens of fear, doubt, or inhibition. What a waste of expertise that would be.

Before I leave you, fear not, for the engineer is returning on Friday. The process of writing this blog has turned my frustration towards them into empathy, while previous admiration for the mysterious boiler Jedi at technical support has descended into condemnation for straitjacketing their staff. So, here’s to investing in expertise, sharing knowledge, and growing together. No gatekeepers, just open gates.

Sam

Sources:

Ashman, G (2021) Thinking Critically About Critical Thinking – Quillette

Chisnell, G (2021) Talent Pathways, Impact Journal (Chartered College of Teaching), Spring 2021, Pages 33-36

Konnikova, M (2020) The Biggest Bluff. 4th Estate, London

Preece, D (2021) The Great Divergence: or how subject specialism could be an interesting strand of retention for teachers. | (home.blog)

Willingham, D T (2009) Why Don’t Students Like School?. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.

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