Genius v. Expertise

[An update: The friend I reference in this post has asked that I identify him. He’s Eric Weinstein – very much worth following. It is both of our hope that this post becomes part of a much larger dialogue.]

I ran into a friend of mine the other day. He’s not a teacher, not involved in education except that he has children in school but he’s deeply concerned about it nonetheless. He also has a mind that can spin ideas at a blinding rate, and a conversation with him can feel like the intellectual cross between an 800 yard dash and a boxing match.

I asked him what ideas he was playing with these days and he said the following:

The coming change in this country will be between genius and expertise. The West Coast is primarily concerned with genius while the East Coast has built a fortress of expertise. I think genius is the right way to go.

I told him I had to think about this, and I have quite a bit, and if nothing else I think it’s a fascinating what way to analyze some of the conflict we are seen in various places in our society. To me, he was tapping into an old tradition of the enfant terrible, the idea of the brilliant young mind–often tragically misunderstood and doomed because of the society that could not accept its genius. We’ve had that been for a long time, and we have just enough proof of its existence as to think it’s true. It’s also a profoundly romantic idea, and Americans love romantic myths. We would rather believe in the genius of the Steve Jobs then in the work of someone like Gordon Moore.

My friend challenged me think about the ramifications of this in education, arguing that much of the current argument about teacher certification and seniority were about protecting expertise at the expense of genius. He argued that expertise seeks to stay within the box of what is known while geniuses able to invent the new and see beyond the current limits of the system.

This was a chance encounter, and I admit I wasn’t ready to have that debate right then and there.

The next time I see him though, I will tell him that I think he has created a false dichotomy. I will tell him that we shouldn’t reject knowledge simply because an idea came before us, and I will remind him that wisdom, which could be another frame for his idea of expertise, is hard-earned.

I watched when a group of people who thought they were smarter than everyone in the room tried to start a school once. They declared that “all prior language of education is tainted,” and they sought to create a wholly new language. Their school was a mess, and they repeated many of the sins of the past and a promising idea of a school failed in a truly epic fashion. Perhaps my friend would argue that they were not as genius as they thought they were. And he would probably be right. But, often those who would appoint themselves as genius are not as smart as they think they are, and the old saying of pride going before the fall is often true.

But I see his point too – if expertise is used as a caste system. If those who would consider themselves “expert” believe that their learning is over, or that they have nothing to learn from those whose life and work experiences are not as detailed as their own, commit just as great a sin. The educational community is reeling these days because so many of their “experts” didn’t foresee the coming storm of the past decade. I remember talking to a principal as we were starting SLA. He thought he had mastered all that Philadelphia education was, and I couldn’t possibly understand how to run a school because I didn’t have the expertise he had. Turns out, he might have misjudged that situation. And worse, as the rules of the game changed over the past eight years, his unwillingness to see what he did not know had profoundly negative effects on his school. I hope his successor is up to the challenge he has left.

The other problem with the genius myth is that there just aren’t enough geniuses to go around, so those who believe in their own genius fall back on a somewhat autocratic response. The Gates Foundation / Broad Foundation phenomenon in education is much like this. So many of the people who come from that part of the education world seem to think that they’ve got the answer if everyone else just did exactly what the genius folks told us to do. But that doesn’t work either, because rarely can you help a child develop agency when you have been denied it yourself.

It can take some really smart people — maybe even geniuses — to innovate. Let’s be sure of that. But the true gift lies not in coming up with the idea, but in developing ways for others to own it. We aren’t going to get four million geniuses to teach in our schools. (I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t want them anyway, the teachers’ lounge would become even more insufferable.) We also have to understand that expertise can become a prison of its own creation if it locks out new ideas and creates a hierarchy of “expert” that causes resentment, stagnation of ideas and entropy. And in the end, what both genius and expertise need is a healthy dose of humility because we should never fall in love with our own ideas, no matter how we came to them.

What I will tell my friend is that we need both and a lot more humility too. We need creativity and knowledge. We need folks who can look at problems in new ways, listen to those who are most deeply affected by the problems and then apply acquired knowledge, wisdom and skill to create the solutions we need. We need the designers and the engineers if we are going to build sustainable models for the future of our schools. And then we need good people of honest intent who are smart enough to learn from the lessons of others, apply those lessons to their schools and communities to create rich places of learning for everyone there.

16 thoughts on “Genius v. Expertise

  1. I think I can see where you synthesis comes from. I would add that geniuses -moments of genius some of us could have- may just as well cause resentment among experts. Experts at their job as a result of having made a sustained effort over a number of years tend to feel slightly threatened by sparks of genius. Yes, I agree we should not fall in love with our ideas. Neither should we fall in love with our sustained effort. So humility does it both ways.

    On a side note, I can’t help enjoying the fact this post is written between two conversations with your f2f friend. I assume, perhaps I’m wrong, that your friend does not read your blog.

    When you friend says “The coming change in this country…”, the deictic “this” points to my own reality in Argentina as I read it. Perhaps we are not that far. East/West could be translated to Capital city and the provinces. I think we need to understand the coming change is unloading our speech from trying to decide which way is best for us, seen from where we come from, and making sure we provide students with a context to decide what is best for themselves, freed from our own dualities because we have solved them before taking action in front of them. If they can come up with dualities of their own making in the future, there’s an interesting change to look forward to.

    Regards to you and your thought-provoking friend.

  2. Perhaps this is a false dichotomy, but consider how these two types of labelled individuals think (and you should know what I think about labels). An expert knows how to do something well within a sphere of influence -> inside the box thinking if you will. A genius knows how to tap another kind, or perhaps many kinds, of knowledge, by considering many spheres of influence at once (a big picture thinker) -> outside the box thinking. Again, this is all too neat and tidy, and life is just not like that. But amidst all the gears on the floor from the experts and the colliding quarks of the genius, I think we can find some useful metaphors for the types of thinking we want our children to be able to accomplish. The more pressing question is how do we foster both expert and genius thinking in the children sitting in our classrooms right now? How do we not turn them off when they enter school and how do we engage them so deeply in learning that they hunger for more? I pray we will know better how to focus on kids and less on politics by the time the three year old in this house walks through those doors of academe.

  3. genius can be a cultivated characteristic… and more of it is available than expressed for a variety of reasons. the myth of the expert is an interesting topic. the merit badges we call degrees or certificated do not, in fact, usually indicate much more than maze running capacity. genius does not belong to the west coast any more than expertise belongs to the east. we should be appreciably more interested in encouraging a lifetime of autodidactic behaviors.

  4. What we really need are educators who are lifelong learners, open to new and different ideas, learn from others, examine new models, and willing to experiment and try new practice!

  5. Right, and in the future everything will go faster, food will be in pill form and all buildings will be oval. Oh yeah, every complex issue will be reduced to fake opposites. Oh yeah, and Dan Pink will be our sovereign leader. Al Shanker will be defrosted and head-up Teach-for-America.

    Even the East/West Coast dichotomy is too clever by half.

    The education of children should be primarily concerned with the transition from childhood to adulthood. It’s about continuum – becoming part of a culture that dates back before Twitter and has some potential to endure through future contributions.

    Steve Jobs PAID DUES! Great musicians PAY DUES! Athletes PAY DUES! Politicians PAY DUES! Every young trumpet player wants to sound like Terence Blanchard so they copy the most superficial aspects of his sound without any recognition of his 40 years of effort or his concept behind the formulation of that sound which can be traced to the masters on whose shoulders he stands.

    Piaget’s theory of genetic epistemology also teaches us that there is no shortcut. Learners learn through the personal construction of knowledge. Knowledge is a consequence of experience.

    “Genius” is magic. “Genius” seems like a prize bestowed by lesser experts.

    Ask your pal which period saw the greatest technological innovation, 1860 – 1910 or 1960 – 2012? Nearly every AMAZING gadget we marvel out today existed in some form in 1960. What Edison, Bell, et al did during their lifetimes was change the world. They read books, went camping together, traveled, experimented and worked hard.

    We live in an era of cut and paste where we don’t bother learning the lessons of the past, we just copy a string of text that seems to do the trick. Expedience rules the day. Some grad students and young academics from some of the world’s finest universities attending the conference I’m at in Athens have made grandiose speeches about how our work, heroes and expertise are unimportant to them and self-evident. They seem incapable of articulating what they stand for or why, but the old people (experts) must surrender the reins immediately because they are well, young.

    I am going to get in trouble here, but can we please ban cliches like “teachers need to be life-long learners,” especially if you cannot produce an example worthy of examination? If you tell me that you are a lifelong learner, that claim should be able to be verified.

    Teachers need to be learned, smart, talented, clever, articulate, creative and perhaps most of all INTERESTING people. Every teacher should be able to articulate their expertise. If they say, “teaching,” we should debate that and ask for a growth plan to become even more expert without external prodding. If a teacher’s expertise IS teaching then kids only gain benefit from that expertise if it is made transparent to them.

    Teachers should be asked the same questions politicians deserve. What is your stance? What are you willing to fight for? Which order would you refuse to carry-out in your job?

    Here’s an idea for school reform. Silicon Valley and its “geniuses” can start paying its fair share of taxes so kids at SLA can afford to buy an iPad someday.

    When I read things like your terrific blog post, I feel like channeling Roger Schank and ask, “What the hell has Google ever done?”

  6. what is the purpose of teachers as teaching-specialists? invoking subject matter experts to share knowledge and experience with students (of all ages) about their work/field is a better approach. what is the purpose of stratifying students into age-banded groups? etc.

    • Bruce – I’m going to leave the question of age-banded groups aside because we probably agree there. There is much about the structure of school that isn’t necessarily good for kids, and strict age-based grouping is one of them.

      As to why should teachers be teaching-specialists? It’s important because there’s no guarantee that knowing something means you can teach it well. My wife’s high school physics teacher quit right before school started, so they brought in a local engineer to teach physics. It was a nightmare. He couldn’t teach the kids. And at SLA, the best mathematician we ever had on faculty was the worst math teacher we had. He simply could not explain what he knew well to kids. There is both a science and an art to teaching that takes time to do well. At 25 years old, when I entered the teaching profession, I was a pretty expert reader/writer at a sophisticated enough level, and while my graduate work gave me a fair number of skills I needed to communicate that work, I was a far better teacher as I gained experience and (dare I say) expertise. I immersed myself in pedagogy, so that I could learn what I needed to more effectively teach – and more importantly, so my students could more deeply learn. In short – I became a better teacher through the thoughtful, reflective practice of teaching.

      That being said, I love bringing subject matter experts into our school to share their experiences. And, as part of what we do at SLA, all students do two years of what we call our “Independent Learning Program” which is, essentially, old fashioned internships / apprenticeships because we think it is incredibly valuable for students to have real-world experience, working in the field with practitioners who are willing to share their experience. What is interesting is, in the first years, many of the mentors we pair our students up with come back to us and talked about how ill-prepared they felt to really teach the kids, and that was in a 1:1 or 1:2 teacher-student ratio, so we developed a handbook / crash-course to help them develop the skills they needed to be more effective mentors, and again, that’s in about as ideal a teaching situation (hands-on, 1:1 teacher-student, buy-in and interest on the part of the student) as you can get.

      The other thing is this – much of what kids learn in school is not going to be directly applicable to the life they lead later. I’ve written and spoken a lot about what we could or should do about this – the shorthand is that I believe we should empower kids to be able to see how what they are learning is powerful to them as the people they are now. But beyond that, much of what we do in school is to help them develop the habits of mind that will allow them to build on the skills, knowledge and wisdom they acquire while they are with us. And yes, we probably agree that there aren’t many schools that do a great job of that now, but it is (or should be) the aspirational goal of what K-12 education is trying to do.

      In the end, watching a master teacher at work is a thing of beauty. I’m incredibly lucky in that I get to do that every day at my school where there are many master teachers. Watching someone help students construct understanding and meaning is an incredible thing. The greatest compliment ever paid to me in a classroom was when a group of students said to me, “The difference between class and your class is in class, we are aware of how smart is, but in your class, you help us see how smart we are.”

      Everything I do as an educator is try to help kids see how smart they are.

  7. Chris,

    There is obviously much nuance involved in both the art and science of teaching. I take high quality teacher education very seriously.

    However, my experience with experts as teachers is quite different from the one you describe. It is clear that much of our culture is suspicious of expertise and a mythology about experts being antt-social non-communicative weirdos who have no place near children remains popular.

    In my experience, people with demonstrable expertise make the very best teachers because what makes them an expert is a remarkable ability to reflect on their practice while constantly striving for more clarity and expertise. The precision with which they construct their expertise often translates into an ability to articulate how, why and what they do for students.

    An expert brings insight into a discipline and models for students a way to truly love a subject, not just be taught it.

    Perhaps the level of expertise is an important distinction. In other words, would the “expert” mathematician on a faculty be considered an expert mathematician outside of a high school setting?

    I learned more mathematics during a 15-minute conversation with John Conway or Brian Silverman than I would in 100 years of Mrs. Freiberger’s algebra class. I learned more about music (and much more) watching Art Blakey or Tony Bennet or Ruben Blades perform for 5 minutes than my kids did playing nifty show tunes in 8 years of school band.

    The President of Bard College, for my money the finest education institution in America, says, “I employ faculty who are not were.”

    Give me an expert I can sit next to and a space where learning is put ahead of teaching, grading, ranking and sorting any day.

    • Gary,

      And yet, everything you do in teaching is getting kids to construct meaning… the issue here is balance. There’s no question that kids at SLA benefitted greatly from hearing Steven Squyres and Craig Venter talk. And there’s no question that the ILP program at SLA is an essential part of what we do. And even the ILP mentors who felt they needed help to be more effective were not “anti-social non-communicative weirdos,” they just wanted to be better teachers.

      Let’s make sure kids have time w/ experts. Let’s make sure kids understand context for learning. And let’s give kids incredible opportunities to see what it looks like when masters ply their craft, but let’s not devalue what great teaching can look like as well.

      And I’ll go one step further, a great teacher who helps kids to construct knowledge and meaning can also inspire that love of subject. Watching Zac teach kids English was to watch a master teacher. I’m not sure if Zac falls under your description of “expert” in writing or reading, but he certainly helped kids develop a love of reading and writing.

  8. as between the difficulty of having a teacher attempt to communicate that s/he does not viscerally know, or having a (genuine) subject matter expert share knowledge without over many “teaching” skills, the choice seems just as obvious as it has been institutionally neglected. another obvious teaching truth is that humans are intelligently (but not intentionally) designed to play with information in context, and learn more effectively when the targeted experience is connected intelligibly to everything else.

    • Bruce – I’m not sure the first truth is as obvious as you think it is. Perhaps the question is this – “What do you mean by expert?” I am not a math expert in that my math knowledge ends at Calculus, and most of the professional math I have had to do in my career has been statistical analysis. However, I have had a lot of success teaching Algebra I with kids. I have a strong grasp of the material, and I bring a fair amount of pedagogical game to the table that transfers from the expertise I have gained as a teacher. We can agree that people should not teach what they do not know, without question. You would not want me teaching a science class, for instance. That’d be bad. However, there’s a continuum of understanding, and “content mastery” feels like a different place than “genuine expert,” and I’d put the threshold for teaching at mastery, I think.

    • I’ll take the notion of expert to a more personal level, as well.

      When I was a classroom teacher in New York City, I coached as well. I coached two sports – Ultimate Frisbee and Girls Basketball. I played Ultimate on the college and club levels, making it to the Collegiate and Co-Ed National Championships, and while I was never a dominating player, one could make a case that I had expert knowledge as a player.

      I was a decidedly mediocre (at best) basketball player. But I had a passion for the game, and I did broadcasting in high school and college, and the school needed a coach or they weren’t going to have a team.

      Here’s the funny thing – I became a better basketball coach than Ultimate coach, I think. Or at least as good. I was not an expert player and I knew it, so I forced myself to read every book, watch every video, go to clinics, study game footage, learn how to break down the requisite skills so that I could teach them, because I never wanted my girls to lose a game because I wasn’t a good enough coach. That was never o.k. But I didn’t learn to become an expert basketball player, I learned to become an expert basketball coach.

      And the funny thing is that learning something with an express lens of knowing I had to teach it made my learning radically different. I had to learn the skills not as a player but as a teacher which was different. In fact, I went back and re-examined everything I did as an Ultimate player through that lens so that I could apply the lessons I learned learning to coach basketball to coaching Ultimate.

      Teaching something is different than doing it. One should, without question, be able to do the things you teach. (I am a much better basketball player for having learned to coach it, by the way.) But knowing how to do a thing and knowing how to transfer that knowledge to others is different. That’s o.k. We agree, you have to have the knowledge, but can we also find common ground that knowing how to unlock what you’ve done so that others can learn from you is no small thing either.

  9. First of all, innovation does not come from geniuses, it comes from people who understand the domain really well – people who are, as I would say, critically literate in the domain. These are usually people directly involved with the domain, deeply immersed in the domain – not geniuses, not solitary sparks.

    Second, you write, “But the true gift lies not in coming up with the idea, but in developing ways for others to own it.” This the same as saying “the true gift is marketing and commercialization.” I reject that.

    • Stephen, I’d argue that innovation comes from many places, but overall, I agree that folks who are critically literate in the domain often are the innovators.

      As to your second point, I couldn’t disagree more with your characterization of my thought. It’s not about marketing and commercialization. It is, for me, more about the application of ideas than the pure crystallization. In the education world, for instance, there are a lot of folks who can write lovely theories about education, but school stubbornly remains all too similar to what it was before. Figuring out how to take some of the best ideas of education and make them real, make them live, make them so that others can see them and do the work, that’s every bit as important as the idea itself.

      • You cannot be truly said to have had the idea unless you have built it. So, for example, I can say “I invented an air-car” but you would not accept that claim unless i showed you a working model.

        This business of ‘educational theory’ is like air-cars. A person who proposes an educational theory which has never actually be used to educate anyone is like the person who pronounces “I have invented an air-car” because he thought ti would be neat to have a flying car.

        Innovation is never ‘having the idea’. There’s no such thing as ‘having the idea’ without understanding the implementation. It’s an empty concept.