What is Adaptive Expertise

What is Adaptive Expertise

When I came across the term Adaptive Expertise  while writing my PhD research proposal, I thought “yes, that’s it.” So I digged deeper trying to find the article in which the term was originally termed. Hatano and Inagaki (1986) came up with it after their observations. A very good description of Adaptive expertise, related to teaching, is provided by Reed, De Arment, & Wetzel (2012). They provided an excellent summary. In short, an adaptive expert is somebody who can

  • Work without problems on routine (well-known) situation.
  • Find quickly a solution to a new situation

Routine means, that the situation (method, task, and/or results) are known (Ellström, 200X). It may be a complex or difficult task, but the person has experienced it already before and knows how to handle it.

brain left right
Picture by TZA, Creative Commons – Noncommercial

For a presentation, I have been looking for examples of adaptive expertise. This was difficult, as one aspect of the concept, transferability, is not well-defined. Reading the original article, adaptive expertise seems to be within 1 domain and not across domains. An example of this could then be the NASA team creating a way to rescue the chilean miners. They knew the task (build something) and the result (rescue the miners), but weren’t sure about the method (how to do it). In the teaching field, an example would be for a high school teacher to teach pre-school. But based on my understanding of the concept of adaptive expertise, if it is only in 1 domain, how can it be adaptive. In this regard I disagree with Hatano and Inagaki.

Systematically analyzing studies on adaptive expertise showed me that we don’t know a lot about adaptive expertise for certain (Certainty for researcher means that it has been proven empirically and the findings can be generalized to other settings). A wide variety of factors are researched (e.g.: cognitive flexibility, cognitive abilities, analogical transfer, personality factors, domain specific skills, learning/work climate) and not for all of them it is possible to generalize the findings. For example, results of personality on adaptive expertise are messy, to say the least. What I can say with some degree of certainty, is that adaptive experts have different semantic networks. The manner in which different concepts connect in their brain gives them the opportunity to perform at a high level in novel situations. They are able to draw analogies better and faster than routine experts. That’s what makes them adaptive (at least given the current level of knowledge on the concept).

Why companies need adaptive experts

The scene of my PhD is the field of professional development. I’m not just speaking of teacher development as it is common in the area of educational science, but of development of professionals in all types of jobs: Accountants, lawyers, doctors, nurses, police officers, factory workers, you name it (Most research makes a difference between high- and low skilled employees, but I think for adaptive expertise that distinction is irrelevant). It is important for companies to have adaptive experts as it is thanks to those people that companies can deal with change (of course the company needs to listen to them). Especially in times of crisis, with budget cuts and uncertainty hanging over companies like a Damocles sword, it is important that a company nurtures adaptive experts. Through their adaptive abilities they are able to devise new products/services, new methods to work, and make the best of the opportunities the current situation has to offer them. But even when the number of threats are low for companies, adaptive experts are important. They are able to combine already existing procedures/products and create something new from them. In meetings they are better able to combine the (seemingly contradictory) inputs and ideas, summarize them and draw conclusions out of them.

Are adaptive experts more creative?

When I started to look into adaptive expertise, I directly was triggered to connect it to the concept of creativty/innovation. Given the conceptualization of adaptive expertise and creativity there should be a link. But I searched the literature, and have not found anything. Luckily, this lack of evidence is there, because no studies have been done on the topic. So the answer is still out there. My plan was to fill this whole, so I included an instrument to measure the four facets of creativity (fluency in ideas, flexibility in ideas, elaboration of ideas and originality of ideas) together with adaptive expertise. However, the setting in which the surveys were first distributed didn’t had enough participants to say something about it (with certainty). So this part of my PhD is currently on hold until I have found a new setting/company.

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