Why doesn’t everyone become an expert?

It is clear that expertise is often confused with experience. And yet there seem to be many people engaged in a variety of activities for a considerable time who never become expert. Let me give two simple examples that annoyed me today:

  1. A visit to the corner minimarket. When I have a few groceries to buy I often nip into our local minimarket rather than drive to the big supermarket. The one thing that annoys me about my local shop is that none of the sales people – however polite and friendly they are, seem to know how to pack a bag. Today I bought (fairly typically) some eggs, a loaf of bread, some chicken breasts and some potatoes. However I arrange them in the basket, it seems the sales assistant always attempts to put the eggs and the bread at the bottom of the bag and then to throw the much heavier and less fragile potatoes and chicken on top – with the result that I have crushed bread and cracked eggs. Every time I have to stop the process to ensure the eggs and the bread go at the top. Admittedly, I don’t take a great deal of time to explain my actions to the sales assistant, but as I am talking about ‘not breaking the eggs’ or ‘flattening the bread’ I guess they might pick up on the general trend. But, no.
  2. The second example of experience not transferring into expertise comes when I cross the road on the way home just by the roundabout. As I wait for a gap in the traffic, I always notice how few drivers feel the need to use their indicators to show where they are going. I don’t trust their indicators, but I notice that so many of them either fail to indicate at all or actually indicate the wrong way as they exit the roundabout and zoom past me.

It may be that these two examples of a failure to achieve expertise in repetitive tasks occur for two different reasons. I assume that the sales assistants are not particularly interested in packing my shopping and so pay little attention to what is going on. This lack of interest and lack of focus will explain why they plateau at a basic level of competence where the shopping gets into the bag, I pay and go. Job done. The drivers, on the other hand probably have a very different perspective, and I suspect if I challenged them about the underuse of inappropriate use of their indicators they would explain that they are in fact excellent drivers and that the fault was mine for wanting to cross the road at a silly point.

So how does this translate to observations of teaching? There are evidently some academics who don’t really pay attention to their teaching and just want to get through the lecture – job done. Likewise, there are some academics who have been teaching for a long time and still fail (metaphorically) to ‘use their indicators’. They will claim to be ‘good teachers’ and state that students are just ‘not what they used to be’ – they don’t have the skills and want to learn in ‘silly ways’.

So much for experience.




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