When Cultivating Expertise, Here’s How Technology Can Help

I’ve been talking about the nature of expertise and the roles working and long-term memory play in making us “expert.” For more on all of this, see Breakthrough Leadership in the Digital Age by the brilliant Bror Saxberg and yours truly.


Practice is what cements learning into long-term memory. Traditionally, teachers juggling 25 students have trouble integrating lots of opportunities for practice into classrooms where they’re busy explaining content and maintaining order. Textbooks tend to emphasize passive explanation of knowledge and concepts, in part because it’s hard to craft books that offer much in the way of dynamic or authentic practice. Technology, on the other hand, can make it easier to provide students with opportunities to practice. Computer-assisted learning can allow a handful of students to practice certain kinds of problems while teachers instruct their peers, and it’s easier for digital resources to incorporate methods of interactive practice than for traditional, printed textbooks.

Good practice is tightly linked to good assessment. Indeed, the best practice often looks a lot like an assessment—but with explanations and feedback as the primary objective. This is all really quite intuitive. Good swimmers get better by swimming practice laps, and are then “evaluated” in races where they swim those same laps. Student drivers practice driving and parking, and are later evaluated in tests of how well they drive and park. In a classroom setting, time-strapped teachers charged with serving an array of students often feel pressed to move on after a fixed amount of time practicing, especially if the class is growing restless while only a few students seem to need more practice and feedback. One-on-one support or tutoring can help, but that’s a pricey option—if it’s even available. Technology offers promising alternatives.

Technology can boost student motivation and personalize practice by matching drills, items, and exercises to student interests and goals. Persuasive essay writing prompts can draw on information about student interests to better match the student with a subject she’ll find interesting and take seriously. Again, there’s nothing here that creative, hard-working teachers can’t already do, it’s just that technology makes it more routine and less exhausting. Moreover, computer-assisted practice can more readily encompass banks of essay-writing topics to assist teachers who may not be personally adept in everything that engages their students.

Technology also makes it possible, for example, to instantly share essays with coaches or respondents across the country or around the globe. This means that additional instructors can provide feedback and coaching, improving the value of each practice session. In turn, this can further reduce the burden on teachers, which may incline them to assign more writing, and means students can receive more extensive and immediate feedback. Computerized practice items can provide rich data about student learning, making it possible for teachers to offer additional practice time which can be more readily customized. It’s not that far off from what high-end video games do when they modify challenges and customize difficulty levels based on player behavior.

Indeed, this is why so much attention has been devoted to the benefits of the “gamification” of learning practice (for a fascinating book on this, see Greg Toppo’s The Game Believes in You). Well-designed computer games are so engrossing precisely because they provide copious practice, while activating our learning machinery the right way. They succeed because of the “learnification” of gaming. Challenging, popular games suggest that when tasks are challenging but doable, learning is fun. One first-grader, after struggling with a computer programming task, told the eminent learning psychologist Seymour Papert that the experience was “hard fun.” This is a description that aptly characterizes the best games, and the best learning.

Demonstrations and information give students conceptual knowledge and examples of what a task looks like when done well. While the best teachers are terrific at this, many other teachers are not. Technology can provide consistent access to well-designed demonstrations. These can be enhanced by combining audio, text, and visuals. And, while adding informal but targeted voice-overs to well-structured videos makes a real difference, much more promising developments are on the horizon. For instance, a research group at the University of Maastricht experimented with video and voice-overs to train pediatricians and found that adding circles to the video to highlight areas of interest on an infant helped, but blurring details outside the area of visual interest worked even better—presumably because this permitted working memory to avoid having to process extraneous information.

Talking about practice, demonstration, and feedback isn’t as much fun as using the tech buzzwords of the moment, but this is where technology really intersects with and aids learning. The challenge is to focus on how new tech helps cultivate cognition, even when the conversation gets hijacked by attention-grabbing proposals for iPad adoption or requirements for online course-taking. Unfortunately, this turns out to be a lot harder than we’d like it to be. Next week, I’ll close this little reverie by talking a bit about what the nature of expertise means for the limits of experts.

—Frederick Hess

Frederick Hess is director of education policy studies at AEI and an executive editor at Education Next. This first appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

Previous blog entries in this series can be found herehere and here

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