Sunday, September 04, 2011

The Transfer Challenge to Expertise

Consider this relatively commonsensical view of problem solving:

“We absorb information in some common generic way and then apply our individual talents to using that information to solve problems.”

As straightforward and intuitive as this description sounds, it contains a counter-productive assumption about knowledge, confusing it with information. We tend to assume that the things we experience are experienced in the same way by other people. We might all look at the same world, but we make different observations and draw different conclusions from it. The knowledge base we each build over our lifetime is not just a straightforward result of the information presented to us; it is also in part a result of how we organize that information, which can be very different from one person to another. This is the foundation of the expertise model.

Organization Matters

It is not enough to have the right information to solve a problem, the information must also be organized in a way that lets us think about it in the right way.

Expertise is a key factor in effective problem solving because it permits us to organize information about a domain, recognize patterns in that domain, apply domain knowledge to new kinds of problems, and incorporate new information about that domain.

The expertise model gives us several key insights into the problem solving process that the commonsensical view above misses:

It tells us that the way information is organized is critical to how that information can be used for problem solving. Many problem solving principles will deal with how information is best organized to solve problems.
It tells us that in certain key areas, deep accurate understanding is important and not just superficial familiarity. Both intuitive decision making and more formal methods rely on deep accurate understanding acquired from experience.
It tells us that a great deal of deliberate practice with good feedback is needed to acquire deep understanding.

It tells us that more skillful problem solving emphasizes principles, while less skillful problem solving relies on procedures.
In spite of the tremendous power of the expertise model, it has its own limitations as well. Expertise lets us detect meaningful patterns of information in particular domains because of the way we organize our own knowledge.

The organization of domain-specific knowledge in our mind has important implications. It means that experts have differently organized knowledge for thinking in different domains. The fact that the expertise model is so thoroughly domain-specific forces us to now confront the most serious challenge of all to the expertise model: the challenge of transfer. If it takes so much deliberate practice to become good in a given domain, how does anyone manage to become good at more than a very narrow range of activities? How do our narrowly cultivated abilities support other activities? Or do we have important abilities that are not domain-specific as well? What does it take to apply our hard-won expertise to problems different than the ones we specifically practiced for?

The Failure of Mental Exercise

At one time, it was widely believed that people could develop their mind by doing mental work such as solving logic puzzles, learning mathematics, reading classics of literature, and learning to speak Latin. A long history of sometimes large scale research on this approach to mental ability revealed it to apparently have very little promise.[1] Literacy in general, while valuable for its own sake, simply does not have much effect on other thinking abilities.[2] Our ability to solve puzzles doesn’t tend to generalize very well unless the training specifically teaches the underlying patterns and provides us with a way of remembering them.[3] We don’t automatically apply the lessons of solving one problem to solving a structurally similar but different problem. The different appearance of problems tends to throw us off. When we learn strategies for solving problems, we tend to learn them in a way that is tied to the specific kinds of problems that we used for learning them. Expertise, the research confirms, tends to be very context specific.

How Transfer Does Happen: Two Roads

The problem with this result is that while it seems consistent with the expertise model, it doesn’t quite make sense in terms of our everyday experience. All of us routinely do apply what we know to new kinds of problems. We aren’t equally incompetent in dealing with any sort of novel problem; our existing expertise clearly does sometimes give us an advantage in another domain. We also see negative influence of expertise when our existing abilities interfere with our attempts to perform in a similar domain. Expertise does seem to transfer between domains under some conditions. The question is what those conditions might be.

Research done in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s confirmed that transfer of ability between domains does occur consistently under certain conditions. One cognitive psychologist working with preschool children on simple tasks discovered that the 3 and 4 year olds could use lessons they learned under one set of conditions in a completely different set of conditions, but especially if they were shown how the different problems resembled each other and how the goals were similar, they were familiar with the problem areas, the examples also had rules associated that the children figured out for themselves, and if the learning took place in a social context that specifically encouraged them to spell out the principles, explanations, and justifications to use.[4]

Research such as this led to a general two-pronged theory of transfer, proposed by David Perkins and Gavriel Salomon. The theory is based on the finding that transfer sometimes takes place between similar domains, and sometimes takes place between very dissimilar domains, and that these seem to happen under different conditions.[5]

What the Perkins and Salomon theory calls “low road transfer” happens when situations appear to us to be similar according to simple perceptual cues rather than any deep structural pattern. This seems to be a matter of stimulus triggers. Specific elements in the situation help us recognize and apply skills and knowledge from our memory based on recognizing those elements from our practice. Since low road transfer is pattern-bound, it doesn’t generally lead to transfer to different situations. Practicing under a variety of different conditions however can help is gradually stretch our skills from one context to a similar one to generalize our skills further. Low road transfer is a result of the variety of conditions under which we practice rather than any specific cognitive skills or strategies aside from those specific to the domain. Low road transfer is a perceptual-memory phenomenon.

When a situation bears a superficial similarity to one we’ve trained for, we recognize stimulus patterns and our expertise is evoked via low road transfer. This is how many people manage to drive a truck reasonably well after having learned to drive a car for example. Even though the mechanics are very different, the steering, pedals, and so on are all familiar enough to trigger our learned skills for driving. That is, until we find ourselves in a situation where the fit isn’t so good between our skills and the ones that are needed.

What the Perkins and Salomon theory calls “high road transfer” seems to be a completely different matter. High road transfer involves the deliberate and mindful abstraction of principles during practice and using more general cognitive skills and strategies to apply them to completely different situations. In high road transfer, the learner actively seeks connections between different situations in which to apply the principles they’ve learned. High road transfer is a cognitive phenomenon.

We see that the similarity mechanism of transfer is limited. It only works for relatively similar situations and it works in a very automatic and unthinking way. To apply expertise to a very differently appearing situation with underlying structural similarity (such as we might need for more abstract problem solving) we need high road transfer and we need to use abilities we associate with conscious reflection. This allows us to transfer expertise from deliberate abstraction of principles to entirely different kinds of problems.

The lesson of the transfer challenge to expertise is that expertise does not automatically apply outside of its domain. We have to very deliberately either: (1) work on practicing in widening ranges of situations to facilitate generalization or (2) work on abstracting and applying general principles mindfully from our practice, or both.

Conclusion: Transfer and Expertise

We’ve seen that expertise is a very powerful model that explains in some detail how we organize tacit knowledge for recognizing patterns and solving a particular domain of problems. This appears to explain the lion’s share of differences in human abilities in problem solving. We’ve also seen that expertise can be acquired in such a way that it can be generalized to an increasingly wider range of conditions and in a way that makes it less likely to fail catastrophically under extreme conditions, making expertise a potentially very robust resource for problem solving.

We’ve also seen that the expertise model misses a small but critical aspect of problem solving; it does not tell us how people manage to deal with surprises or with domains that are characterized by surprises. The expertise research consistently shows strong dependence on specific contexts. We do not automatically generalize our skills or strategies to new kinds of problems just by acquiring deep expertise in a domain.

Novelty offers our most serious challenge to the power of expertise. The very concept of expertise implies domain-specificity, and domain-specificity implies that expertise is honed to deal effectively with a particular range of situations. Novelty, both within a domain and outside that domain, creates problems for the standard expertise model that need to be addressed.

Novel but superficially similar situations can be handled through expertise, but only if we specifically widen our practice to deal with a broader range of conditions.

Completely novel situations in other domains that don’t resemble the ones we practice for except in terms of their underlying deep structure can be handled through expertise as well, but only by deliberate attention to learning and applying general principles as well as acquiring domain expertise.

The Story So Far: Going Beyond Expertise

The expertise model tells us how we acquire useful patterns of tacit knowledge from experience through deliberate practice with good feedback. The expertise model explains how we deal effectively with the sorts of situations where we have accumulated extensive practice. Expertise thus acquired becomes part of our intuitive understanding of situations, enhancing, modifying, and extending our existing commonsense intuitions.

The expertise model also challenges us to explain how it is that we are able to deal with extreme yet realistic conditions and novel problems even though expertise tends to be very context-specific. Applying expertise to very different situations requires deliberate mindful work at abstracting principles and applying them through our capacity for reflective thinking. This kind of reflective thinking is not adequately captured by the expertise model. Either we need to expand the expertise model to handle the challenges we have identified, or else we need a more expansive concept to describe our abilities.

[1] (Thorndike & Woodworth, 1901), (Thorndike, The influence of first year Latin upoin the ability to read English, 1923)

[2] (Scribner & Cole, 1981)

[3] (Simon & Hayes, Psychological differences among problem isomorphs, 1977)

[4] (Brown, 1989)

[5] (Perkins & Salomon, 1987), (Perkins & Salomon, Teaching for transfer, 1988), (Salomon & Perkins, 1989)

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