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Joy in Gaining and Using Expertise
Emeritus Professor of Education
University of Oregon
“In short, learning is the process by
which novices become experts.” (John T. Bruer; American psychologist
and cognitive neuroscientist; from Schools for Thought: A Science of Learning in the Classroom, MIT Press, 1993.)
This IAE Newsletter focuses on
the joy of a student or a team of students achieving and making use of
expertise. Individuals experience joy from being good at something, be
it making friends, telling jokes, getting good grades in school,
achieving a high level in a computer game, or reading a good book.
Meeting face-to-face with some friends and/or spending time texting to
friends is a joyful experience for many. Members of a sports team, a
musical or other performance group, or a school newspaper staff
experience joy through their group participation and individual
In all of these activities, an individual can gain in expertise—become
better at participating and enjoying the participation. Each person has
different innate capabilities and limitations. A person’s gains in
expertise in an area are influenced by informal and formal education,
personal drive, intrinsic motivation, extrinsic motivation, and other
factors. The joy in gaining and using an increasing level of
expertise in an area can be strongly intrinsically motivating.
An Expertise Scale
Understanding and gaining expertise is not just about increasing
one’s personal levels of joy. Our society depends on students gaining
the knowledge and skill (the expertise) they will need to be productive
and responsible adults. This newsletter makes use of the expertise
scale given in Figure 1.
Figure 1. An expertise scale. It is not a uniform or linear scale.
This scale refers to expertise in a specific area—an Island of Expertise.
A first grader says proudly, “I can read,” and then demonstrates by
reading aloud a first grade picture book. For a first grader, this is a
huge achievement and certainly deserving of praise—which brings still
more joy. Ability to read a first grade picture book is a small inland
of expertise. One need not be “world class” in an area of expertise to
experience joy in having and using personal expertise.
As children gain in physical and cognitive capabilities, they can
develop more islands of expertise and deeper levels of expertise. The
joy of reading certainly illustrates this point. A child can learn to
read an increasing variety of material with an increasing level of
However, this situation also illustrates a challenging educational
problem. Some children progress more rapidly than others, both in their
general reading skills and in their level of understanding what they
read. If a school’s reading instruction environment is highly
competitive, a child may well lose the joy of learning to read because
his or her reading performance is deemed inadequate in comparison with
“standards” or with the level of other students.
Cooperative and Competitive Learning Environments
Consider a learning environment scale with one end labeled Highly Competitive and the other end labeled Highly Cooperative. This scale is applicable to home, school, neighborhood, and other learning environments.
Now consider a specific student who faces substantially different
learning and living environments throughout the day. Perhaps part of
the child’s day is spent in a highly competitive environment, part in a
highly cooperative environment, and part in a relatively neutral
environment. You might say, “What’s the big deal? That’s life.”
The “big deal” is that children vary considerably in their innate
abilities and in the interests they develop as they grow up. Consider
math as an example. Some combination of innate ability and the way we
teach math leads to a large number of students who experience little or
no joy in their math education experiences. Failure in the required
math taught in our schools is often a major contributor to students
dropping out of high school.
Or, consider the number of women majoring in the various STEM
disciplines in higher education (Moursund, 2016b). The science areas
—especially engineering—of study have long been somewhat hostile to
girls and women.
Quoting from Engineering Needs Still More Women (Crawford, September, 2012):
Although the number of female engineers
today has greatly improved since the early 1980s, when only 5.8% of
engineers in the U.S. were women, it’s still surprisingly low.
Currently, only 14% of engineers are women, according to the
Congressional Joint Economic Committee.
“In the U.S., about 18 percent to 20 percent of engineering students
are now women, an improvement over the abysmal numbers of 25 years
ago,” says Joanne McGrath Cohoon, an associate professor in the
Department of Science, Technology, and Society at the University of
Virginia, where 31% of undergraduate engineering students are female.
We have no evidence that this has to do with differences in innate
ability between men and women. The reasons for this disparity in the
number of women completing such degrees is much more subtle—in essence,
a type of discrimination against women. People do not experience joy in
being discriminated against.
Creating Personal Islands of Avocational and Vocational Expertise
"Try to learn something about everything and everything about something." (Thomas H. Huxley; English writer; 1825–1895.)
The quote from Thomas Huxley is now about 150 years old. The totality
of humanity’s collection of knowledge and skills has grown manyfold
during this time, and the rate of growth has substantially increased.
As a consequence, many of us suffer from information overload
Schools struggle with this situation. What should be in the required
curriculum, and what level of expertise should students be expected to
gain in each of the required curriculum areas? How much freedom should
K-12 students have in selecting areas that they will study?
Take another look at levels 2 and 3 of the Expertise Scale in Figure 1.
Think about these two levels in terms of an adult working 40 hours a
week on a job and having 128 hours a week for sleeping, eating,
shopping, etc.,—and for avocations. Quite a few people think of their
hobbies and other avocations as their “night job” that they do for joy,
as contrasted with their “day job” that they do to produce an income.
Now, think about a K-12 student’s informal and formal education. How
much of this time should be spent in becoming “college or career
ready,” and how much in becoming ready for responsible adulthood that
may include raising a family, pursuing multiple avocations, and many
Our informal and formal educational systems provide students with many
opportunities to develop islands of expertise that might become
lifelong avocations. As an adult, think about some of the pastimes that
bring you joy. Perhaps you have developed a personally satisfying level
of expertise in cooking, photography, watching sporting events on TV,
hiking, collecting antiques, performing with a local theater or musical
group, or other activities that can bring personal joy.
Here is an observation and suggestion. Success in identifying and
achieving a personally satisfying level of expertise is a marvelous
accomplishment. Doing so a number of times as a youth lays a foundation
for having the confidence and positive learning attitudes needed to
continue to function this way throughout life. It
is clear to your author that this focus on the joy of learning to gain
expertise should be a significant component of the goals of K-12
David Moursund is an Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Oregon, and coeditor of the IAE Newsletter.
His professional career includes founding the International Society for
Technology in Education (ISTE) in 1979, serving as ISTE’s executive
officer for 19 years, and establishing ISTE’s flagship publication, Learning and Leading with Technology.
He was the major professor or co-major professor for 82 doctoral
students. He has presented hundreds of professional talks and
workshops. He has authored or coauthored more than 60 academic books
and hundreds of articles. Many of these books are available free
online. See http://iaepedia.org/David_Moursund_Books. In 2007, Moursund founded Information Age Education (IAE). IAE provides free online educational materials via its IAE-pedia, IAE Newsletter, IAE Blog, and books. See http://iaepedia.org/Main_Page#IAE_in_a_Nutshell.
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