Experts, Novices, and Learning

Before our Master of Arts in Educational Technology (MAET) journey even began, we were assigned to read three chapters from How People Learn. I was intrigued when I read about the new science of learning.  One of the biggest “take aways” for me was that learning can really be boiled down to one main idea: understanding.  “One of the hallmarks of the new science of learning is its emphasis on learning with understanding” (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000, p. 14).

Looking back on my own schooling, I can distinctly remember many times that I would be memorizing my vocabulary notecards in order to ace the test.  If I were asked those same test questions now, I can guarantee I would not be able to answer most of them.  I was memorizing the information in order to pass the test, but did not necessarily understand what I was learning.

My MAET group came up with characteristics between experts and novices. (This photo was taken by me.)

Now that I think about understanding from a teaching perspective, it can be difficult to gauge whether students are truly understanding a concept, or if they are memorizing just like I did.  Teachers being able to assess their students understanding is crucial.  “There is a good deal of evidence that learning is enhanced when teachers pay attention to the knowledge and beliefs that learners bring to a learning task, use this knowledge as a starting point for new instruction, and monitor students’ changing conceptions as instruction proceeds” (Bransford et al., 2000, p. 11). Tapping into that prior knowledge and using it during instruction can give students a chance to relate.  When students can relate to a topic, they can connect to it on a personal level, which can be a factor in understanding and truly learning.

It takes a real expert teacher to be able to dig out the students’ prior knowledge and relate it to the topic they are learning.  In How People Learn, one of the biggest take-aways for me was the distinction between experts and novices.  One of the main ideas regarding the difference between experts and novices was the idea of noticing.  Experts, especially when it comes to teachers, are more in tune with their surroundings and their students. “Experts notice features and meaningful patterns of information that are not noticed by novices” (Bransford et al., 2000, p. 31).  The number of features and patterns that expert teachers notice, that novice teachers do not, can truly make a difference when it comes to instruction in the classroom. “The idea that experts recognize features and patterns that are not noticed by novices is potentially important for improving instruction” (Bransford et al., 2000, p. 36).

After now being finished with my second year of teaching, I recognize that I am still a novice teacher.  I am very aware that there are things that some of my more experienced colleagues notice and pick up on, that I sometimes need to be told.  I can think of an instance at the beginning of this school year when I was planning a writing unit with some of my grade level teammates.  After our students had been writing for a few weeks, one of the expert teachers on my team made a comment about pausing the unit to teach writing complete sentences because that was something she had noticed her students were struggling with.  When I thought back to my students’ writing, mine were struggling with it as well, but I had not noticed it as clearly as my teammate had.  She really made a point to notice the big ideas, which is something that experts do.  “Novices’ knowledge is much less likely to be organized around big ideas; they are more likely to approach problems by searching for correct formulas and pat answers that fit their everyday intuitions” (Bransford et al., 2000, p. 49).

In our MAET program, we have the rare position of being both learners and teachers.  We are looking at our educational technology content through two different lenses.  First, as a learner, it is imperative that we understand the content ourselves to ensure that we are truly learning.  Then, as a teacher, it is important that we understand our students’ prior knowledge in order to ensure that the tools we take back to the classroom can be utilized and learned to their full potential. “…it would be a mistake simply to expose novices to expert models and assume that the novices will learn effectively; what they will learn depends on how much they know already” (Bransford et al., 2000, p. 50).  As learners and as teachers, we have such a unique position of understanding the content ourselves, and helping others understand it too.  The ability to take the information we learn in MAET, take it back to our classrooms, and have students understand it is the work of a true expert teacher.



Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (2000). How people Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. Washington: National Academy Press.


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