Saturday, January 26, 2013

Review of "Surpassing Ourselves" - A profound vision of a problem solving culture

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 written.

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.

The 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 novices.

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 promising.

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 problems.

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 it.

Further Reading:

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 ability.
Outsmarting IQ: The Emerging Science of Learnable Intelligence
Smart Schools
Making Learning Whole: How Seven Principles of Teaching Can Transform Education

In "Rethinking Expertise," Harry Collins looks more specifically at the social dimension of knowledge underlying the group process of expertise.
Rethinking Expertise

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.
Dialogue Gap: Why Communication Isnt Enough and What We Can Do About It, Fast

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.
Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes


  1. Anonymous4:21 AM

    I was thinking for getting this. Thanks for the great review.

  2. Anonymous9:05 AM

    Is this the same fellow who wrote the article on expertise in Scientific American back in 2006? I mean to ask you that in my last post.

  3. Sorry, I don't know, I don't have a comprehensive list of their work handy. I did a quick search to see what they were publishing in that time period and I did find two very interesting articles. One is from 2006 on the parallels between deep learning and building knowledge across disciplines. The other is an earlier article going further into their reframing of the concept of learning in general.