Experts and Novices: is that all there is?

When teaching something new, what should be the goal of instruction? What kind of measures can be used to indicate proficiency or expertise? While a student’s prior knowledge is important when choosing an instructional approach (worked examples for novices and problems for experts), is there anything else that teachers can use to help them make judgments about student proficiency, choose the optimal instructional approach or decide upon the next steps in learning? Is background knowledge the only measure of expertise? The Novice-Expert continuum is often described as if it is a dichotomy-is there any way of adding further nuance to what can often seem like a simplistic polarization?

One possible approach is the ‘Instructional Hierarchy’ (Haring et al 1978). This framework splits learning into five distinct stages (although some adaptations reduce this to 4), each with distinct goals, broad descriptors of competence and suggested instructional approaches.

The five stages:

  1. Acquisition
  2. Fluency
  3. Retention
  4. Generalisation
  5. Adaptation

Describing the incremental development of expertise, the stages also focus on a number of the important aspects of learning, including transfer, the change from inflexible to flexible knowledge and memory. Some object to ‘a change in long term memory’ being used as the definition of learning because it only seems concerned with retention and focusing solely upon memory can seem like a reductive and narrow conception of learning. However, the objection is often not about the importance of retention, but is instead concerned with the absence of anything else in the definition. Learning is a complex and multifaceted process and the Instructional Hierarchy could help teachers think about more than mere retention.

As well as potentially fleshing out the bit in between novice and expert, the stages of learning can help teachers make more precise decisions regarding instructional choices. Teaching is clearly not as simple as choosing between worked examples and problems, and learners are often somewhere in between the absolute descriptors of novice and expert.

Each of the stages may span many lessons and students will be at different stages with different skills. While the end goal of most instruction will always be creative, generalized performance where students deftly choose, adapt and refine what they have learnt in a way that fits whatever context they are presented with, the most efficient way of achieving this will involve multi-lesson instructional sequences that move students through the preceding stages. It is probably impossible to be a fluent performer in a particular discipline if you are inaccurate. Similarly, if you haven’t even acquired whatever it is you are learning-perhaps because you failed to select the correct information, then accuracy cannot be developed either. While experts have better organized and more developed knowledge at their disposal, it is how they are able to apply that knowledge that also sets them apart from novices. If learning is merely about retention, then this can sometimes be forgotten.

Stage 1: Acquisition

This stage of learning refers to students who are learning a skill for the first time. The objective at this stage is for students to learn how to complete the skill accurately and repeatedly. Following Engelmann’s guidance, initial teaching should span at least two lessons-although it may span more-and will probably involve some initial massed practice of the skill to reinforce the salient points.

Acquisition should always begin with modelling where students are shown exactly what they are expected to do before attempting the skill themselves. Students can then use these models as exemplars to consult when attempting to produce their own versions. Teachers should make their thought process explicit when writing live models, discussing their choices and the reasons why they are doing what they are doing. Initial practice activities must allow the teacher to give instant corrective feedback so that errors do not become ingrained and restrictive activities are an efficient way of doing this.

The goal of this stage of learning is for students to be able to accurately perform the skill without any form of support. While tasks will begin with lots of scaffolding, support and prompts, these should be faded out as quickly as possible.

Stage 2: Fluency

Fluency is an important part of expertise in any domain. Expert performance is rapid, smooth and accurate, and seems almost effortless and automatic to an observer. Once students have demonstrated the ability to perform accurately, the next focus for instruction will probably be fluency. Fluency, defined here as accuracy+speed, can be built by engaging in regular, short, practice activities that include a specific focus on speed by setting time limits or counting the number of successful completed trials within a specific time limit. Feedback should be focused on speed and accuracy and students should be praised for increased fluency. Like in the preceding stage, corrective feedback should be instant in order to make sure that students don’t ingrain errors.

Asking students to write 5 specific sentence constructions can be a useful fluency starter.

At this stage, students can be also be asked to combine skills together in practice activities.

EXAMPLE 1:  Ask students to combine embedded evidence with appositive phrases like this: The writer describes where the giraffes live as ‘nine small puddles’, a metaphor that hints at their vulnerability and the fact that their habitats are slowly being destroyed.

EXAMPLE 2: Ask students to combine present participles, multiple interpretations and tentative language like this: Upon hearing the witches’ prophecies, Macbeth says ‘cannot be ill, cannot be good’ as if he is not only intrigued and fascinated by their predictions, but is also slightly horrified by the possible ramifications of usurping King Duncan.

With these combinatory practice activities, it is important for students to have demonstrated accurate performance in each of the separate components before they are asked to combine them.

Stage 3: Retention

To ensure that students retain the skill, practice should be distributed over weeks, months and even years. Like with fluency practice, periodic review does not need to make up an entire lesson: distributed practice activities make ideal starters to lessons.

Stage 4 Generalisation

An important aim for instruction is for students to gain a generalized understanding of what is being taught and this is a core aim of Direct Instruction programmes. The first step in the development of DI programmes is a rigorous analysis of content to identify things that are generalizable as if these things were taught, they would provide the greatest benefit to students due to their wide applicability. In English, sentence constructions and analytical components are two examples of generalizable concepts and strategies. The ability to generalize is quite similar to the idea of transfer and transfer is the goal of this stage: if you have a generalized understanding of how to use noun appositives, you will be able use them in descriptive, rhetorical and analytical writing.

Distributed and varied practice across the widest possible range of relevant contexts can go some way towards helping students achieve near transfer. Initially, prompts or success criteria can help remind students to apply what they have learned to new contexts. Students can also be asked to underline the required skill within a new context, helping to remind them to use it; for example, if you are teaching not only….but as a means of writing multiple interpretations, and you want students to use this sentence construction in a rhetorical piece in order to build arguments-thereby widening its usage and asking students to generalize-then this step can help prompt them. As a final reminder, you can ask student to check for a specific thing after they have finished. Instead of check your work, ask them have you included 2 not only…but. Like with any form of scaffolding, these reminders should be removed as fast as possible so that students are expected to work independently.

Stage 5 Adaptation

The adaptation stage builds upon the generalisation stage: at this point students can typically apply the skill in novel situations without prompting from the teacher. Being the final stage in the hierarchy, this stage doesn’t end and will typically see students making small modifications and adaptations to the skill, widening its applicability even further and seeking out new creative ways of using it. This stage represents independence and true proficiency- students will be accurate, fluent and able to use the skill with flair and originality.