Teaching Hidden Knowledge

Professor at lectern

The Expert’s Blind Spot
I recently taught my son how to drive a stick shift. I sat in the passenger seat explaining how to work the pedals and the shift, and he did what everyone does in that situation: jerk, stall, jerk, stall, and feel frustration. He was doing exactly what I was telling him to do, but it wasn’t working.

>At first I just repeated my instructions and told him to keep trying until he gets it right. But then I discovered that part of his problem was that I was leaving a lot of information out of my instructions. I told him to lift his foot off the clutch and hit the accelerator to get started, but in thinking about it I realized that when starting in first gear I didn’t hit the accelerator. I simply took my foot off of the clutch and let the car roll forward.

This is a good example of hidden knowledge. Some of what I knew about driving a clutch I didn’t even know that I knew, and because of that was leaving it out of my instructions. I had fallen victim to the “expert’s blind spot,” the inability of experts to see the problems of novices because they cannot see through the eyes of novices. Experts come to a situation with background knowledge that helps them understand the problem and what is needed. This knowledge is acquired through experience, and is often opaque to them. Without it, novices can’t grasp what is being taught to them.

For instance, physics students often have difficulty analyzing a problem because they put it into the wrong category. They analyze the problem in terms of surface features, such as “circle problems,” which leads them astray. Physics professors instead categorize problems according to deeper principles, such as “conservation of energy.” Often professors teach the mechanical processes of solving a physics problem, but not the prior step of analyzing a situation to apply the correct principles.

I know a faculty member who complains that his students do not cite all of their sources correctly, despite being told to “cite this” in the margins of their papers. The professor assumes that students are not paying attention to him. But the problem might be that students do not know when to cite. The professor knows that you do not need to cite common knowledge, such as that the USDeclaration of Independence was signed in 1776, but do have to cite information that someone might challenge you on. I can imagine him telling his class that “everything must be cited,” and in the next assignment finding that the students have cited their own names by referencing their birth certificates.

The expert’s blind spot leads many faculty members to separate their most important expertise from what they teach. They teach down to the students’ level and in doing so leave out critical knowledge of their field. It is helpful to think of teaching as a master-apprentice relationship. The apprentice blacksmith comes to the master to learn those things that define expertise in blacksmithing. “The metal broke when you bent it because it was too cold,” the blacksmith says. “It glowed dark red. It needs to glow bright red like mine.” Like the blacksmith, the teacher is cultivating student expertise in the teacher’s “guild,” be it math, physics, or history. Faculty should be teaching students how they themselves as mathematicians, physicists, or historians approach their field.

One way to teach expertise is by modeling expert behavior. Faculty often grade by telling the student where they made mistakes, but leave out information on how to correct them. They might leave the margin comment, “Say more about how social media inform customer relationships,” and nothing more. Students are left to wonder, “What more is there to say?” or, “How do I know when I need to say more?” The faculty member’s comments are like a little league coach saying, “You’re swinging wrong, swing better” to an eight-year-old and walking away.

Faculty can teach students what needs to be included in their work by providing examples of what was left out. The faculty member can say, “For instance, you could talk about how businesses use their Facebook page to respond to questions and complaints to demonstrate their concern for customers.” Now students have examples of what they should have done, which demonstrates the depth of discussion expected. This will help them achieve that depth on the next assignment.

Faculty can also model behavior by demonstrating how they think about a new problem. This can be done with screencasts. Instead of just providing the mechanical processes of solving a problem, faculty members can put themselves in students’ place of seeing a problem for the first time on a test. Faculty can say, “Here, I would first look for . . . ” and continue from the first stage of analyzing a problem to proving a solution. This is like my talking through the process of how I drive a stick shift step-by-step. Faculty who do this will likely discover that they use quite a bit more knowledge to solve problems than they assume. This will make them aware of the types of expertise that they are leaving out of their teaching, and what students need to learn.

The same can be done to help students read academic work. Faculty tend to assume that students who leave out material from the assigned readings did not do the reading. But often students do not know how to read academic work. Students read for facts, whereas faculty read for broader themes (Rhem, 2009). A faculty member can address this problem by making a screencast for their class on how they read and take notes on the kind of work assigned in class. Take a look at this example from my own teaching: https://youtu.be/-JLQ-Q5AsXE.

Online faculty can also ask students to make screencasts of themselves working through problems or other course material to identify what students are doing wrong. Students can use free software such as Jing or Screencast-o-matic to make the screencasts and post them to a free hosting site such as screencast.com. The instructor can then look at these screencasts to identify mistakes in how students are approaching the problems, and provide advice on how to fix it.

Teaching pattern recognition
It is also important to understand that much expertise involves pattern recognition. Chess experts do not simply see a chess board as a bunch of isolated pieces. They see the board as patterned. Masters think, “My opponent is using the Spanish Opening,” and respond appropriately. Expertise in chess is developed by acquiring a repository of chess positions over thousands of games. Similarly, medical students are taught how to identify a broken leg in an x-ray by being shown a number of x-rays of broken legs, along with a number of x-rays of unbroken legs. At first they cannot see the difference, but over time they develop an eye for distinguishing a broken leg from an unbroken leg.

Faculty can help students develop pattern recognition by showing them multiple examples of a principle applied in different cases. Whether it is a literary theme appearing in different works, or a marketing principle appearing in different ads, students will develop an eye for seeing it by looking at many examples across different contexts.

Teaching is about cultivating expertise in students, and that means teaching the hidden knowledge that defines expertise in your field. Find ways to show your hidden knowledge to students, and you will soon be seeing vast improvements in your students’ understanding and work.

Chi, Michelene, Paul J. Feltovich, and Robert Glaser. 1981. “Categorization and Representation of Physics Problems by Experts and Novices.” Cognitive Science 5(2): 121–52.

Rhem, James. 2009. “Deep/Surface Approaches to Learning in Higher Education: A Research Update.” Essays on Teaching Excellence: Toward the Best in the Academy 21(8).

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