Experts and Empowerment

We all, as David Wiley writes, want to empower learners. While we read a great deal these days about education as job training and workforce readiness, what we really want to be able to do is to enable each person to make his or her way in the world, to pursue their own good in their own way.

This, to me, involves reducing and eventually eliminating their need to depend on experts. As I imperfectly expressed the point the other day, "It’s about actually empowering people to develop and create their own learning, their own education. So not only do they not depend on us for learning, but also, their learning is not subject to our value-judgements and prejudices."

Unfortunately, this is often read as a casting of the student into the world to rely solely on their own devices. David Wiley echoes the sort of misinterpretation of this view that is common:

"It is hard to imagine any form of learning that does not involve an expert – except pure, unguided, trial-and-error discovery learning. Without reference to any person – or any artifact created by a person – of more experience than ourselves, all learning would be maximally inefficient. We would each be left to rediscover the entirety of physics from scratch. And the entirety of music theory. And the entirety of every other field, without a conversation or a textbook or a Wikipedia article to guide us."

Such a proposition is absurd, and as it is absurd one should conclude (I would hope) that it is not the proposition I am arguing for.

So let me be clear: in the world as I understand it, there are more than two options. There is an option somewhere between "depending on an expert" and "left to rediscover the entirely of physics from scratch."

And - to be clear - a great deal of 'expert content' exists. There is not only the aforementioned Wikipedia, there are also academic publications, magazine and newspaper articles, open online courses, blog posts, NASA videos, TED talks, and a host of additional educational content. Indeed, in today's environment, and for the foreseeable future, we are virtually swimming in educational content. It would be rash, irresponsible, and unthinking to say that a person should not consult any of this when learning physics or any other discipline. So, that is not what I am saying.

What I am addressing with remarks like "we should not depend on the expert" is the stance that ought to be taken by the learner with respect to the learning material extant on the web and elsewhere. And I mean this two two distinct but related ways:

- first, the learner should not accept the report of the expert uncritically. Expert advice on any given subject may not merely be misleading or misinformed, it may also be offered out of context, it may be outdated, it may be misunderstood, and in some cases it may be malicious. Examples of any of these cases may be found in abundance, especially on today's polarized and politicized media environment.

- second, the learner should resist the characterization of certain sources, certain perspectives, and certain content types *as expert*. While once we may have been able to rely on peer and publisher review to verify the authenticity and accuracy of the information, this is no longer the case. Moreover, an increasing body of verifiable and reliable information is being published outside tradititional channels.

These two conditions amount to the assertion that the learner should take what amounts to a critically reflective stance with respect not only to expert content but with respect to all content. Maybe there was once a day when we could trust expert opinion, but today we live in an environment where not only can we not trust the experts, we cannot even trust that the people offered as experts in fact are experts.

This is an important point. While it is common to use terms like 'elite' and 'expert' interchangeably, they are in fact distinct concepts. To call a person an expert refers to their knowledge. A person is an expert in a discipline if they have a deep knowledge of the field, a base of experience in the field, and can talk about matters related to the field rationally and reasonably. But to call a person an 'elite' refer to their position in a community or society. A person who is elite will have accumulated a disproportionate amount of power, wealth or influence.

Sometimes a person will be elite as a result of their expertise. If we speak of, for example, "elite scientists", we may be referring not to the richest or most powerful scientists, but those with the most expertise. But in practice we are rarely so precise. And so the word 'elite' even in a scientific discipline may refer not to those with the greatest knowledge, but to those with the most power and influence.

My own experience in life is that the people who become elite do not always become so as a result of their generosity, but rather as a result of their parsimony. They achieve their status as elite not by sharing but rather by hoarding. Such members of the elite carefully cultivate a culture of dependence. By ensuring that their followers depend on them for knowledge, influence and wealth, they augment their own position in society. The parsimonious elite are not interested in the empowerment of their students. They are greedy, selfish and self-interested.

Not all members of the elite are parsimonious, and not all experts are members of this elite. But the membership is sufficiently large that a learner ought not, as a general policy, place oneself in a position of dependence on experts. With every word of advice received, the learner must be in a position to ask whom the advice is intended to benefit. And the learner must be in a position to seek alternative sources of expertise, to weight options, and to decide what to believe for him or her self.

What is significant, to my mind, is that by being able to adopt such a critical stance with respect to expertise, learners are not only much better able to vet for themselves the reliability and authenticity of a piece of expert advice, they also acquire the capacity to look beyond a smaller set of 'trusted sources' and cast their gaze across the wider information landscape, as they will be able to select the reasonable and reliable even from such nontraditional sources as discussion lists, blog posts and alternative media.

It's like being able to read. Before we could read, we had to depend on the priest to tell us what the book said. After we learned how to read, not only could we see what the book says for ourselves, we can also read other books that may say different things. Being able to read not only increases our understanding, it increases our power to choose what will inform that understanding.

From my perspective as an educator, we should not be like the educator who reads to people, and who builds a large hall and charges fees in order to have people come to us to listen to use read to them.

Nor should we be like the educator who reads to people for free. This does not achieve our aims. 'Giving content for free' does not reduce the need for people to depend on a reader. Rather, it creates a new problem, that of sustainability - how are we to pay people who read for free?

We should be like the educator whose primary interest is in teaching people to read, so they do not need to come to us at all, so there is not only no need for a hall and for fees to be paid, but no need for our particular expertise, because everyone can have it.


  1. For me the whole of this issue can be summed up this way: expert on tap not on top.


Post a Comment

Your comments will be moderated. Sorry, but it's not a nice world out there.

Popular Posts