Illusion of Expertise?

I’m helping to facilitate a Campus Learning Community (CLC) focused on the book How Humans Learn by Joshua Eyler (2018). The book aims to examine the “science and stories” behind learning. The book is broken up into five broad concepts that impact student learning at the collegiate level: curiosity, sociality, emotion, authenticity and failure. In each of these five areas, Eyler discusses the evidence base behind the concept and the pedagogical applications at play. While I’m only midway through the book, it’s been an entertaining and educational read so far.

Our CLC met for the first time last week. In this first session, our group discussed the curiosity concept and how we as teachers work to foster curiosity with our students. We discussed how children are naturally curious (one of Eyler’s main premises) and the impacts that the environment (media, education, parenting, etc.) can have on our students’ curiosity. One of the CLC participants argued that a lot of students come to his class with “self-perceived expertise” and this undermines their curiosity. They feel like they already know the content so why bother attending class or reading the book or studying for tests. The challenging part, he explained, was that so much of what they believed they knew was actually wrong from a scientific perspective. But the students’ beliefs in their own expertise kept them from learning. It undermined their curiosity.

I left the meeting wondering where these feelings of misplaced expertise may originate. Regular readers of this blog know that I’m an avid podcast listener. I found a possible explanation in last week’s episode of Hidden Brain which was titled Close Enough: The Lure of Living through Others. The episode examines several stories about people who live through YouTube videos. While the whole podcast is interesting, I think the middle section most applies to our discussion here.

Midway through the episode, the host (Shankar Vedantam) shares research that examined the impact that watching instructional videos had on people’s beliefs of their abilities. In the research, psychologists have participants watch instructional videos on how to perform a skill (doing a dance move, throwing a dart or playing an online game). Some participants watched the video once while others watched the video twenty times. Participants who watched the videos multiple times felt they were skilled at the task despite never actually doing the task. Simply watching the videos, the authors write, fostered “an illusion of skill acquisition” (Kardas & O’Brien, 2018).

In our era of YouTube, flipped classrooms and social media influencers, our students are interacting with instructional videos more than ever before. Extrapolating from the Kardas & O’Brien study, maybe these instructional videos are to blame (at least in part) for the students’ illusion of expertise. And maybe that’s at heart for the diminished curiosity that my colleagues observe. I say “maybe” a lot here because it’s hard to take a study that was performed in an isolated setting and apply it to some (possibly) unrelated condition. But I’ll throw one more “maybe” in here for good measures. According to the research study, there may be a solution to this “illusion of expertise.”

In the last experiment the researchers ran, participants watched instructional videos where the learned how to juggle bowling pins and asked to assess their level of proficiency with juggling. After the self-assessment, the participants were then divided into three groups. One group was asked to reflect on the process of juggling bowling pins. The second group was given technical information about the bowling pin (its height, weight, etc.). The last group was asked to physically hold three bowling pins for one minute. The participants were then asked to re-assess their juggling proficiency.  The group that held the bowling pins were the only group that rated themselves significantly different in the second assessment. The researchers attributed this reduction to the “feeling of doing.” The authors write, “experiencing a ‘taste’ of performing attenuates the illusion.”

From my perspective, that’s the actionable part for us as teachers. We need to create safe opportunities for students to challenge their “illusions of expertise.” We need to put them into situations where they obtain the “feeling of doing” to help them recognize their true abilities. It is from this dissonance that curiosity can hopefully grow.

One thought on “Illusion of Expertise?

  1. Pingback: Top Posts from 2019 | The 8 Blog

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