Designing Our Students’ Journey

How Do We Get Them to Expertise?

Tai Tung Chinese Restaurant Kitchen, stacked bowls, since 1935, Seattle, Washington, USA.

A couple of years ago, someone recommended a Chinese restaurant near me for takeout. I ordered chicken with snow pea pods, and it was excellent.

  • It was in a clear sauce.
  • The chicken was tender.
  • And there were also crunchy water chestnuts with the delicate pea pods and tender white meat.

The next time I ordered it, the owner asked: white sauce or brown sauce? I decided to try brown sauce, and I asked for it spicy.

It was awful.

  • The salty bitterness of the brown sauce intensified the bitterness of the pea pods and masked the delicate chicken flavor.
  • And the spiciness clashed with the sauce and the pea pods.

Truly, they shouldn’t have offered me that choice. It’s like asking if you want maple syrup on your burger.

Now it’s possible an expert chef could adjust the flavors so they harmonized.

  • This was a very good cook.
  • He could cook the dish perfectly with clear sauce.
  • But he could not blend the elements successfully into a whole with the changes I requested.

This is not just a story about a takeout order gone wrong. This is a story about expertise.

“Cake in progress.”

Consider learning to bake a vanilla cake.

  • You might follow a recipe.
  • You might bake that cake enough for it to become a habit.
  • If something went wrong, you might learn to adjust to change it.
  • If the cake is dry or heavy, you might learn how to add more sugar or whip the egg whites more.
  • But you still would not be able to bake an angel food cake or a pound cake — those are different beasts.
  • And you might not be able to adjust the recipe so it’s a chocolate cake : that’s too many factors changing at once.

Doing a particular thing well despite challenges is quite different from successfully facing a new kind of challenge. We could call these skill levels:

  • beginner,
  • advanced, and
  • expert.
Via Pixabay.

Each permits a different degree of novelty. The first level is rote. A beginner follows instructions until they become habitual. At this point the behavior is automatic, but there may be no understanding of how the process works: the underlying logic.

The advanced level is adaptive. As you encounter problems, through trial-and-error or explicit rules, you discover more about the underlying logic, and you can adjust to different circumstances, different variants of the same basic procedure. You can solve some problems, but they may not be problems of your own design.

The expert level involves originality. You can not only solve problems, you can define your own problem — even an original one. It’s like the difference between acing the test and writing the test.

In higher education, we are often aiming to get students to the expert level.

And our position as experts allows us to stand outside the student’s pathway while also seeing our role in shaping that pathway. Rote knowledge and habit may be required to apply a rule to solve a problem.

  • But a complex problem cannot be solved by rote knowledge alone.
  • You must not only apply a rule to a situation but also recognize what kind of situation it is, which kind of rule best applies.
  • And if you are creating the situation, rather than responding to it, mere adaptation is not enough.

In higher education, we are often asking students to immerse themselves in complex systems: systems in which every part impacts the others.

  • Chicken with snow pea pods and water chestnuts has some complexity, as does a painting or an essay: if you change one part, it changes the whole.
Social network visualization.

And every social phenomenon, including education, is similarly complex, although more so. (And if you think cooking isn’t complex, you should consider the difference between the best meal you’ve ever eaten and the worst.)

To create a problem as our students may eventually do is a matter of design: designing a complex system.

And this is what we’re doing when we’re teaching, too.

Examples of the different skill levels are not hard to find. Language instruction is well-studied, and teachers in that field have developed an elaborate set of specifications for performances at different levels. They have more than three levels, but in language instruction the three levels of performance are clearly recognizable.


  • react
  • using stock phrases
  • in limited range of highly-structured and delimited situations.

Advanced beginners:

  • respond
  • make grammatically-correct utterances
  • in a wider range of structured and still delimited situations.

Fluency is achieved when you can:

  • initiate
  • to create & pursue your own goals
  • in unstructured situations which you must define and delimit.

Choice functions differently at each level.

  • At the first level, I make no choices: ‘Ou est le restaurant?’ It’s a stock phrase for a stock purpose.
  • At the second level, I choose the content within rules I must apply correctly: ‘Je preferais du cafe.’ I choose the coffee, and I apply the conjugation to express politeness.
  • At the third level, I choose the goal and the methods: ‘Allons-y au bar.’ I decide where to go (to a bar) and how formal I want to be (‘Let’s go,’ not ‘Shall we go?).

In a quantitative discipline like math or physics, this is like:

  • knowing a formula,
  • knowing how to use the it,
  • knowing when to use the which formula.

Thus the three levels differ in:

  • agency,
  • degree of structure,
  • behavior type, and
  • complexity.

A single table summarizes them neatly.

Helping students get to expertise involves creating tasks which systematically change in character across the learning process.

At the beginning of the learning process, the student

  • responds to prompts
  • in a highly-structured situation with
  • very limited complexity and
  • a limited range of choices.

By the end of the learning process, the student

  • initiates or directs her own work
  • in more unstructured situations of
  • greater complexity with
  • a wide range of choices
Astronomical calendar (via Wikipedia).

It’s a journey from dependency to autonomy, and it’s the reason some of us teach: to support another’s agency and autonomy.

But we must add another level of complexity.

Namely, that the duration of this journey may be short or long.

And in a many educational situations, this transition can take place at different scales at the same time.

For a course or a curriculum, this movement may happen at any or all of three levels:

  • micro: a lesson, a week, a ‘module’;
  • meso: a ‘unit’ of a few weeks;
  • macro: from the beginning to end of the course or curriculum.

In a language class,

  • we may master a single tense by moving from rote expression to coordinated choice to initiating a story, and
  • we may do the same thing for another grammatical structure,
  • even while overall we are moving from rote repetition to autonomous self-directed expression.
via Wikipedia

This growth, at once simple and complex, opens up for us a design phenomenon of repetition across scale — a pattern found in nature as where a leaves alternate in the same patterns as smaller branches and larger branches.

But what nature does so easily humans do only with substantial effort and much care. And so it can take considerable time to become expert at helping students become expert across hours, weeks, and semesters — let alone the year, the college career, and the lifetime.

We become more capable of doing this when we occupy the position of a system designer. We make learning systems that, like the tree, are self-similar across scales. The challenge is high but the reward, the support of human agency, is inherently worthwhile.

— Edward R. O’Neill

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.