My recent review of Carl Berieter and Marlene Scardamalia's wonderful 1993 book "Surpassing Ourselves" on Amazon.
It is about how the underlying concept of expertise needs to be rescued from our inaccurate commonsense epistemology and from the negative connotations of speciallization and elitism and instead applied more broadly to processes and groups to make our education and culture in general become more supportive of better thinking and problem solving. It builds from the individual psychology of ability, creativity, and wisdom to the application of the same principles to groups and culture.
This is a remarkable book: deep in its insights, prophetic in its foresight, and
profound in its implications. The most amazing thing is that this book was
published in 1993, the same year the first commercial browser became available.
That was long before science writers had popularized the research on expertise
and long before most people had any idea what sort of thing a "social network"
might be. Yet this book captures some of the most promising ideas of the modern
information age, such as the use of technology to facilitate knowledge-building
communities and the possibility of a wider problem solving culture. Having only
the relatively limited technology examples of the time to draw from by today's
standards, such as desktop computers with local databases, the authors express
their vision in terms of concepts and processes rather than getting caught up in
the details of technology. That turns out to be what makes this book most useful
I think, because it makes the arguments very general.
A lot of my
enjoyment of this book is admittedly because I had come to many of the same
conclusions independently and felt reassured to see the same ideas expressed so
eloquently. I do think they get a lot right here and that their core concepts
have only become more plausible and more important over time since the book was
The driving themes of this book all revolve around a single
idea: an expanded concept of expertise. I think this is a bigger leap of faith
for most people than is at first obvious. Expertise has come to have very strong
connotations in popular culture with specialization and elitism, which is
exactly the opposite of the message in this book. The book is about how everyone
can benefit from what we know about expertise, and how necessary it is to have
schools and a broader culture suited to solving increasingly complex and
difficult problems. It is not at all about specialization or elitism.
disconnect between the expanded concept of expertise and the popular is not just
about the politics and economics of specialization. It is also about how the
research on expertise is interpreted. For practical reasons, most expertise
research has focused on the difference between novices and high performers in a
given domain and how much time and deliberate practice is required to make that
journey. The authors recognize that body of work and draw from it, but they also
recognize, critically, that there are other ways to look at expertise. We can
also compare experienced high performers with experienced low performers. And we
can compare novices who later become high performers with novices who later
become experienced low performers.
The authors expand and elaborate on
the concept of expertise in several ways:
1. Think of expertise not as an
end state of ability but as an ongoing process of knowledge acquisition at
increasingly high levels of performance rather than as an end state of high
performing relative to other people.
2. Think of the expertise process as
being a cycle of learning at one level until it requires less cognitive effort,
and then reinvesting the surplus cognitive effort in reformulating the questions
and addressing them at a higher level of difficulty and complexity, always
working at the edge of our current ability.
3. Think of experts as people
who actively engage in the process of expertise rather than as high performers,
so we have expert (or "expert-like") learners even when they are
4. Think of expertise as something that is done by groups as
well as individuals.
5. Think of creativity as a particular kind of
expertise, where we take greater leaps and risks in working at the edge of our
competence and in building and drawing on our knowledge of what options are most
6. Think of wisdom as another particular kind of expertise,
drawing on our knowledge of human beings and what sorts of things are most
promising in human lives.
The result is a vision of individual ability,
education, and culture that is profoundly progressive in what it takes on,
nothing less than creating the conditions for every student and citizen to
either become or participate constructively with expert learners, to everyone's
benefit, resulting in a broader culture of problem solving rather than one of
stagnant political and philosophical stances. This is a 1993 vision for the
challenges that beset us today, asking us to make better use of technology we
already have available at this point, even though we did not at the time the
book was written.
The authors recognize that even in 1993, most of these
ideas were known and accepted by many educators, but they were very rarely put
into practice effectively. The authors theorize that this is because of how
self-sustaining the usual educational systems and in comparison how much
constant vigilance and effort is required on the part of teachers and
administrators to maintain a different sort of environment, what they call a
"second order environment" that sustains the process of expertise for both
individuals and groups.
One valuable prototype for second order
environments is the research community, in which shared objectives and various
intrinsic social rewards drive the team members to work together to increasingly
more knowledge of their subject and tacking increasingly more difficult
Compare this self-sustaining, actively learning expertise
process with the simple use of technology to connect people to share knowledge.
The difference is profound. Simply using technology to connect more people has
some limited value, but it is a long way from the expertise process. The authors
predicted this long before the "Personal Learning Network" became a promising
but so often unimpressive reality. The gap between connecting people and
knowledge bases, and people actually striving to make increasingly better use of
available resources can be huge, and that is what the authors of "Surpassing
Ourselves" identified in 1993, the way we use the technology and the way we
communicate is critical as well, we can't just connect ourselves and our
databases and expect to use all that potential effectively without facilitating
and maintaining the process of expertise.
Does the term "expertise"
itself limit our ability to make better use of these ideas because of its
negative connotations? The authors point out how terms like "excellence" and
"quality" have often been used for essentially the same idea, but those have
their own misleading or easily abused connotations and limitations as well, and
they lack the depth of individual psychological research found in the expertise
literature. In the end, what we call it doesn't matter so much as whether we
understand how it happens and how to create the conditions for supporting
The books of David N. Perkins offer various
proposals with a very similar and consistent vision to the one in "Surpassing
Ourselves." "Outsmarting IQ" for example offers an expanded vision of individual
expertise that in some ways builds on that of "Surpassing Ourselves" by
providing a model of expertise as the process of navigating intersecting realms
of knowledge, using the principles of far transfer to generalize expertise among
domains and identifying some of the conditions for acquiring it. "Smart Schools"
suggests a way to transform education along these lines. "Making Learning Whole"
looks in more detail at the common process of expert learning at all levels of
IQ: The Emerging Science of Learnable Intelligence
Learning Whole: How Seven Principles of Teaching Can Transform
In "Rethinking Expertise," Harry Collins looks more
specifically at the social dimension of knowledge underlying the group process
In "Dialogue Gap," Peter Nixon elaborates on what is
distinct about the sort of communication that brings out the different knowledge
of each individual and in so doing facilitates what "Surpassing Ourselves"
considers the group process of expertise, as opposed to simply arguing or
conversing on a less constructive level.
Gap: Why Communication Isnt Enough and What We Can Do About It,
Maria Konnikova's "Mastermind" explores the role of a specific
critical factor in individual process of expertise allowing us to work
continually at the edge of our current ability. This is the ability to focus
attention in a particular way in order to actively engage our thinking rather
than just passively observe the same things in the same way. "Surpassing
Ourselves" describes this only in the abstract as actively engaging higher
levels of problems, but the concept of mindfulness offers a possible way of
modeling the process in more detail.
How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes