Adaptive Expertise

In chapter 2 of the book How People Learn, the authors outline six key principles that differentiate experts from novices. Studying experts will not inherently make you an expert in your field, but it can help you frame self-improvement in ways that make your efforts more meaningful. Though these six principles must be integrated and are not a checklist to be accomplished, discussing them separately helps clarify the value of each.

  1. Experts notice features and meaningful patterns of information that are not noticed by novices.

  2. Experts have acquired a great deal of content knowledge that is organized in ways that reflect a deep understanding of their subject matter.

  3. Experts’ knowledge cannot be reduced to sets of isolated facts or propositions but, instead, reflects contexts of applicability: that is, the knowledge is “conditionalized” on a set of circumstances.

  4. Experts are able to flexibly retrieve important aspects of their knowledge with little attentional effort.

  5. Though experts know their disciplines thoroughly, this does not guarantee that they are able to teach others.

  6. Experts have varying levels of flexibility in their approach to new situations.

That final point is the one that gave me the most pause, as well as the most personal value. The authors contrasted a more rigid and traditional presentation of expertise with a flexible, adaptive expertise: the “artisan” vs the “virtuoso.” In technology, this is a challenging topic due to the rapid pace of new development and the drawbacks inherent to adopting the latest framework for the simple fact that it is new, however adaptive expertise is not flimsy flexibility, driven by the winds of trendiness. Adaptive expertise is driven by metacognition and scrutiny of the problem or challenge itself. Was the question or request to me well-formed? Could the root issue be better addressed by a different solution than the one I initially developed? This distinction exists in every domain, from baking bread to data analytics. Consider the following example from information systems design:

Artisan experts seek to identify the functions that their clients want automated; they tend to accept the problem and its limits as stated by the clients. They approach new problems as opportunities to use their existing expertise to do familiar tasks more efficiently. It is important to emphasize that artisans’ skills are often extensive and should not be underestimated. In contrast, however, the virtuoso experts treat the client’s statement of the problem with respect, but consider it “a point for departure and exploration” (Miller, 1978). They view assignments as opportunities to explore and expand their current levels of expertise.

It is interesting to note that both types of experts are used and valued by clients in myriad industries. However, it is the drivers of growth and innovation that more intentionally advocate for adaptive expertise.

In expounding upon that sixth point, the authors proposed a useful framework for perceiving expertise:

…it [is] useful to replace their previous model of “answer-filled experts” with the model of “accomplished novices.” Accomplished novices are skilled in many areas and proud of their accomplishments, but they realize that what they know is miniscule compared to all that is potentially knowable. This model helps free people to continue to learn even though they may have spent 10 to 20 years as an “expert” in their field.

There is nothing inherently wrong with skillful, technical expertise – even getting to that point is a huge accomplishment for someone at the novice level. However, your mindset (including your mental model for what it means to be an expert) will significantly impact your growth. Placing a static apex atop your field objectively limits your capacity to learn through your own self-limiting of approaching learning opportunities.

As a former educator, I read this chapter in the context of applying the principles in designing better learning environments for preK-12 students. However, the authors describe the integration of all six as students “developing the ability to teach themselves.” This is a goal that applies beyond age limits. Singapore, for example, recognized this need in their country through the “Thinking Schools, Learning Nation” initiative. That initiative was implemented holistically, driven by national leadership and embraced at every level; however, individuals can still make a positive impact on our culture by advocating for lifelong learning in their local culture – be it corporate, civic, or otherwise.

The principles outlined above (and the authors’ explanations) have me convinced of the need to always be questioning, always be learning. I would love to be the type of accomplished novice, highly skilled as an expert in relevant fields, to the point that someone will be able to say of me, as the authors do of adaptive experts:

They not only use what they have learned, they are metacognitive and continually question their current levels of expertise and attempt to move beyond them.


Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington: National Academy Press.

Miller, R.B. (1978). The information system designer. Pp. 278-291 in The Analysis of Practical Skills, W.T. Singleton, ed. Baltimore, MD: University Park Press.


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