Wednesday, October 21, 2009

What is Adaptive Expertise

Adaptive expertise is a broad construct that encompasses a range of cognitive, motivational, and personality-related components, as well as habits of mind and dispositions (Bransford et al., 2000; Hatano & Oura, 2003; Schwartz et. al., 2005). Its empirical validity has been examined in a number of training and learning contexts. In a series of blog posts, the adaptive expertise paradigm will be reviewed as well as the associated literature that documents the various benefits this conceptual approach has been shown to confer including innovativeness, flexibility in performance, and learning through problem solving (Barnett & Koslowski, 2002: Fisher & Peterson, 2001; Holyoak, 1991).

Expertise can be thought of as a continuum of adaptive ability making the distinction between those characterised as ‘merely skilled’ versus ‘highly competent’; as ‘artisans’ versus ‘virtuosos’ (Miller, 1978; Wineburg, 1998); or as those approaching a problem in a routine versus more flexible way (Schwartz et al., 2005). Artisan and virtuoso experts have in common extensive knowledge and skills with a capacity, where necessary, to skilfully apply well known procedures to address domain-specific issues. What differs, however, is their approach to problem solving and attitudes towards expertise, especially their own. Artisan experts regard new problems as opportunities to simply do a task more efficiently with their existing expertise (Bransford et al., 2000). By comparison, the notion of adaptive expertise highlights that a new problem can be viewed as a point of departure for exploration (Miller, 1978) and virtuosos see this as a means to expand and improve their skills and knowledge (Wineburg, 1998).

The latter observation flags the importance of differing views of expertise between artisans and virtuosos. Artisan experts commonly regard expertise as entailing knowing everything that is necessary and thus having all the answers. Success thus resides in using efficiently what one already knows. Adaptive experts, however, view their expertise as a ‘work in progress’ and realise that their current knowledge represents only a small part of what it is possible to know. Given this insight, they are happy to search out new information and to seek assistance from others. They have, in other words, no investment in appearing to be the expert (Bransford et al., 2000). Another perspective is to see adaptive experts as being more ‘meta-cognitive’, as in more aware of their own knowledge stores and gaps therein.

Giyoo Hatano (1982) proposed the notion of adaptive expertise as an ideal for educational researchers looking to find ways to teach students so they can apply learned procedures flexibly or adaptively. Keith Holyoak (1991) aptly makes the distinction that ‘…whereas routine experts are able to solve familiar types of problems quickly and accurately, they have only modest capabilities in dealing with novel types of problems. Adaptive experts, on the other hand, may be able to invent new procedures derived from their expert knowledge’ (Holyoak, 1991: 310). Giyoo Hatano and Kayoko Inagaki (1986) take this characterization further and state that adaptive experts are able to (1) comprehend why those procedures they know work; (2) modify those procedures flexibly when needed; and (3) invent new procedures when none of the known procedures are effective.

A distinguishing feature of adaptive expertise is the ability to apply knowledge effectively to novel problems or atypical cases in a domain without glossing over distinctive factors.. Adaptability allows experts to recognise when rules and principles that generally govern their performance do not apply to problems or situations (Gott, Hall, Pokorny, Dibble & Glaser, 1992). Moreover, studies have shown that this flexibility can result in better performance than that of experts who do not display cognitive flexibility, resulting in, amongst other things, more accurate medical diagnosis (Feltovich et al., 1997), better technical trouble shooting (Gott et al., 1992), and workplace error avoidance (Woods, Johannesen, Cook & Sarter, 1994). This flexible, ingenious application of knowledge in unique cases underlies adaptive experts’ greater tendency to enrich and refine their understanding on the basis of continuing experience to learn from problem-solving episodes.

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