Stimulating Adaptive Expertise

Most individuals chose to attend higher education institutes to set the foundation for becoming an expert. Educational institutions are set up to help individuals achieve this aim. Much expertise development literature focuses on the development of ‘pattern recognition’ as the main path towards expertise. Individuals can make use of various extensively researched activities to achieve this aim: They can engage in extensive practice and feedback seeking to develop their expertise. They can set goals and reflect on their progress. They can follow various courses to deepen their knowledge, or they can find a coach who guides them in planning and evaluating their learning activities.

However, if expertise is solely pattern recognition, then, given the rise of increasingly more accurate and fast algorithms, human experts will soon no longer be necessary as machines will be faster, more accurate, and cheaper in making expert decisions. Experts such as Daniel Kahneman and Eric Brynjolfsson foresee that in the near future computers will be doing the mundane and repetitive manual and cognitive labor, allowing humans to focus on the non-repetitive aspects of work. Coming back to the point of individuals seeking to become an expert, the focus then needs to shift towards individuals seeking to become an adaptive expert.

This shift requires that educational institutes consider how they need to adapt in order to support individuals in this endeavor. Firstly, and most importantly, diversity in experience is required. While a basic understanding of the domain is important, individuals need to be stimulated to learn concepts outside their specialization. Higher educational institutes offering a major/minor structure are on the right path, as such a structure offers students the space to develop expertise in one area (their major), but also push them to take courses that are not part of their domain (their minor).

ae_copySecondly, adaptive expertise also requires that students learn how to experiment with their knowledge. This means that students should feel safe to change the methods and routines they learned early on. Such experiences would sharpen their innovation skills, a necessary component of adaptive expertise. For example, teachers who give extra grades for students who experiment with different presentation formats or written report structure and layout can stimulate students’ creativity. Another option would be to present students more often with real cases that are a little beyond their level of knowledge, in order to stimulate them to reflect on the boundaries of their knowledge and how to overcome them. Maastricht University’s master honors program PREMIUM is an excellent example. During this extra-curricular program, students from different disciplines work together to solve a challenging problem a company is experiencing. Unfortunately, the program is only available for excellent students. Programs similar to PREMIUM integrated into curricula, such as the final course in the Management of Learning master program, provide such an opportunity to all students of the program.

Of course, adaptive expertise can also be developed outside the walls of educational institutes. For example, internships, exchange programs, voluntary work outside an individual’s area of expertise can help. A common aspect of these extra-curricular activities is that they add diversity to the educational experience and stimulate reflection. However, the seed for being adaptive and not only relying on well-trained pattern recognition should be planted early on in students’ life. A focus on ‘acing the test’ should be replaced by a thirst for being exposed to the unfamiliar, by replacing a culture focused on performance with a culture focused on learning.

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