Information Age Education
   Issue Number 184
April, 2016   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is edited by Dave Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education (IAE) publications.

All back issues of the newsletter and subscription information are available online. In addition, six free books based on the newsletters are available: Validity and Credibility of Information; Education for Students’ Futures; Understanding and Mastering Complexity; Consciousness and Morality: Recent Research Developments; Creating an Appropriate 21st Century Education; and Common Core State Standards for Education in America.

Joy in Gaining and Using Expertise

David Moursund
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 contributions.

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

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 understanding.

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 (Moursund, 2016a).

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 other activities?

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 education.

References and Resources

Crawford, M. (September, 2012). Engineering needs still more women. American Society of Mechanical Engineers. Retrieved 3/17/2016 from

Moursund, D. (2016a). Information underload and overload. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 4/17/2016 from

Moursund, D. (2016b). Women and ICT. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 4/3/2016 from

Moursund, D. (2013). Education for increasing expertise. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 3/10/2016 from

Moursund, D., & Sylwester, R. (eds.) (April, 2015). Education for students’ futures. Eugene, OR: Information Age Education. PDF file: Microsoft Word file:


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 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


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