Judging expertise

One of the reasons researchers focus on experts instead of expertise is that it seems easier to find the one than the other — you can look to community-acclamation, or to the gold medalists, or to people with 2500+ Elo ratings and pick out “experts,” but expertise itself is harder to see — you can’t just rely on outcomes, because expertise is just one of the factors that influence performance.

TMTOWTDI and expertise

One of the guiding principles of the Perl programming language is TMTOWTDI — there’s more than one way to do it (where “it” is “pretty much anything you want to use Perl to do”). Interestingly, for most (interesting) domains, this is true of expertise, as well. Wait for it… I’m still defining expertise as the set of acquired traits that contribute to success in some endeavor — but for whatever domain you’re looking at, there are often multiple strategies that can work.

Everyday expertise

The Winter Olympics are on! We’re in the first week of watching athletes who’ve spent years honing their skills and now get to amaze us with their spins, speed, and grace. Sports are a fantastic domain for researching and talking about expertise, with the direct observation of expert performance, the long history of deliberate practice, and the sheer excellence people can demonstrate. That’s not what this post is about.

The continuity of expertise

One of the (many) things that makes research on the highest levels of expertise challenging is that — by definition — there aren’t that many people at the highest levels of expertise. One way around this obstacle is to try to actually study those people — the Olympians, the chess Grandmasters, the international orchestral soloists, etc. Depending on the domain, that’s either difficult or impossible, so most research ends up taking the second option: they study people with less expertise.

Expertise and attention

So, my last few posts started to describe a theory of expertise as something like: the set of factors acquired over time that help someone achieve success in a domain (see this and this for some background), and specifically the (picture my hands waving madly now) “mental” ones. I think it’s time to say (just a bit) more about that. As of right now I think of expertise as some mix of: representational knowledge (facts, etc.

Expertise: success in a domain

So, in my last post I defined expertise as the set of acquired factors that contribute to success in a domain, and waved my hands at refining that (to, for instance, something about “mental” factors). Let’s dig in a little bit on the latter part — “success in a domain.” What counts as “success in a domain?” Some researchers (Fernand Gobet, for instance) look at expertise as getting “results that are vastly superior to those obtained by the majority of the population,” but that raises the question of which results we care about.

Expertise (n.)

If we’re talking about “expertise” instead of “experts,” it’s only natural to wonder what “expertise” actually is. Hold on to your butts, here comes the (light, I promise) conceptual analysis. In simplest terms, expertise is just being good at something. That’s not the whole story, though — there are lots of ways to be good at something, but we don’t want to call all of them expertise. Let’s look at basketball as a concrete example, and playing one-on-one, specifically.

Expert (n.)

I’m doing a deep dive into the research on expertise (or, maybe more accurately, continuing to dive into that research — it’s been something I’ve been watching for several years now), and one conclusion I’m coming to is that “expert” as a noun is not actually that useful. My biggest concern is that calling people experts instead of talking about their expertise — the knowledge and skills and whatnot that help them get better results in their domain than others do (though stay tuned for a future blog post about what-expertise-is) — reinforces an air of mystery and of otherness.