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How the the novice-to-expert continuum should impact your training approach

Posted by Nathan Pienkowski, Ph.D. on April 30, 2019 at 12:49 PM

When I say the word “school” what comes to mind?  For most of us, that single word carries a vast body of meaning.  You may think of teachers, administrators, curricula, studying, text books – an entire system designed to educate children. 

The word “school” seems simple enough but that’s because we have a vast body of experience with the concept that we can draw upon to understand the word.  Because of this experience, we can grasp concepts like “boarding school” and “trade school” without too much effort.  But imagine trying to explain the concept of a “boarding school” to someone who has never encountered schools before nor even heard of the concept. 

With a pre-existing base of experience to draw from, that phrase will be nothing but an abstraction no  more meaningful than a random collection of letters.  And the amount of effort needed to develop the same mental references that you or I have will be substantial. Teaching the concept “boarding school” to a novice will require a different approach than teaching it to an expert. In sum, the novice learner will have to develop the experiential mental imagery associated with that phrase first.  Until that happens, the words will be nothing but abstractions.

Novices can do little with abstractions – words, concepts, definitions, ideas – without a visceral, experiential knowledge of their true meanings.  For novices, meaning precedes definitions, concepts, and words.  Meaning comes first (this is a simple concept with wide ranging implications far beyond the topic of this post). 

Experts, however, already have expansive, experiential memories to draw upon in a domain.  New words and ideas can be translated into meaning because of the things they already know.  In other words, experts are far better able to turn abstractions into meaning and action.  This is the reason, for example, why doctors can read highly abstract research articles and translate them into clinical practice with relative ease.  They already have a pre-existing, experiential knowledge base that new ideas can integrate into.  For people like that, highly situational training with lots of practice and examples and experiential content can seem frustrating – to them, it can seem like it stands in the way of their “getting to the meat” of something.

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What this means for the learning and development practitioner is that if you’re expanding the knowledge or skills of a population with lots of pre-existing experience in the domain, you can and often should take a very direct, abstract learning path to your goal.  On the other hand, if you’re dealing with a learner population that is brand new to the domain, you will need to take more time and effort building up an experience base using examples, practice, and activity.  Of course, expertise, like abstraction, exists on a continuum.  So the question you should be asking yourself is, just how novice or expert is my population?  The answer is an important factor that should inform your approach.

Topics: expert learners, novice learners