Virtuosity, Expertise, and Teaching

Unsurprisingly for those who know my background as a freelancing musician, I fixed on the idea of experts “artisans” versus “virtuosos” in this week’s reading. The use of the word “virtuoso” has been applied almost exclusively to the world of music to mean someone who has a masterly ability, technique, or personal style. While I’m not opposed to using the word in the context of expertise outside of a musical connotation, I’m concerned with the example provided in the book. The book poses an example of experts doing client work for information system design (hello, 501). The book explains that an artisan will approach the client problem from the limits stated by the client and that the expert is concerned with using their expertise to do familiar tasks more effectively. A virtuoso sees the client problem as a way to “explore and expand their current level of expertise.” The client problem is a point of departure for the virtuoso. (pg. 42)

I’m concerned that this example does not accurately take into account client relationships. Imagine if you hired a consultant to deliver something specific and the product they delivered was an exploration of the expertise of the consultant. On the other hand, if you as the client had enough metacognition to know that you didn’t know what you needed or wanted, a virtuoso with extraordinarily adaptive techniques and a passion for finding the right answer for your particular circumstances would be exactly what you wanted. This, however, requires a certain level of virtuosity from the client in order to apply metacognitive thinking to the situation.

But, who’s to say that an expert cannot be both and artisan and virtuoso given circumstances?

I did like that the authors later say “virtuosos not only apply expertise to a given problem, they also consider whether the problem is the best way to begin.” (pg. 46) To me, considering the starting point is a crucial first step in expertise and in learning. What do I know? What don’t I know? Where am I trying to go? What do I need to find out to get me there?

My second point of fixation: experts do not always make great teachers. Oh boy has this been my experience.

So often we assume that because someone is good at something they must know a lot about it. This is an extreme fallacy. It is just as likely that this person is naturally talented and this person does not have any idea of how they do what they do. It just happens.

We assume that because they are good at it, they have spent a lot of time thinking about it and that they put effort into acquiring knowledge. This may be true, but it does not mean that they can translate that experience meaningfully to others.

I believe that some of the best teachers are people who have struggled to acquire a skill. They know the frustrations and roadblocks. They have tried multiple paths to acquire a skill, and they know the strengths and limitations of different approaches. They have a much deeper understanding of what it takes to be good at it that someone whose skill has coming largely as a result of innate ability, and, most crucially, they have the ability to communicate and translate that experience to many different types of situations and learners.

As an example, this weekend a friend of mine asked me to fix her clarinet articulation. I feel very qualified to help her get better at a number of things on clarinet – tone control and production, technique, interpretation – but I do not feel that I am a good candidate to help with her articulation. My articulation has always been extraordinarily good, clean, and fast. I don’t know how I do what I do. This does not mean that I have not worked on my articulation, but it does mean that I don’t have an understanding of how and why what I do works. It just does and it always has. I told her that I could tell her what I do. I could give her the exercises I use, and I could talk her through visualizations and techniques I have heard described. I told her that as good a teacher as I can be on other topics, I’m probably not the best person to fix her articulation. I sent her to another friend who went through great and painful lengths to fix her own articulation.

Incidentally, the same thing is true of me in other topic areas. I don’t mind telling you I’m one heck of a math teacher, even though all of my intensive education and “expertise” is in the arts and humanities.

4 thoughts on “Virtuosity, Expertise, and Teaching

  1. katzalot says:

    I think you make a good point about experts not always being the best teachers. Just because a individual knows everything about a subject say like history does not mean they know how to best teach that information. But I think the article was suggesting and this has been my experience as a teacher is that we need to treat students as being able to handle expert information and to go in depth. I could as a teacher just say to my students the Civil War was caused by slavery. I would be correct but I would not be going into the depth that is going to make my students truly expert learners. Who can grasp all the concepts. I need to be an expert or at least have a strong grasp of history before I am going to teach it.

    I also think there is a difference between teaching a skill like music where natural talent is going to cloud how a teacher views the ability of students and a subject like history or math where even the experts can remember having to learn the subject.

    • Meggan says:

      I think the point you make about the difference between teaching a physical skill and an analytical skill is very interesting and very valid. Can we say that someone is naturally talented at history? (That’s an actual, non-sarcastic question.) Maybe the difference between, say, history and math is the difference between analysis and skill? Because we can definitely say that someone is naturally talented at math.

      I’m mulling it over. What do you think?

      • Tyson says:

        This is a really good question, Meggan. I think you can be naturally talented at the sort of thinking that results in good historical analysis. This goes for the rest of the humanities too– literary or cultural analysis, philosophy, etc. The problem is that measuring “good” historical or cultural of literary analysis is tricky and subjective, compared to talent in something like math. Then there are the more quantitative social sciences (psychology, sociology, anthropology, etc.) where the type of analysis required is somewhere in the middle.

        “Analysis versus skill” is probably an oversimplified way to think of this, but it’s useful on a basic level. Math certainly requires more hard skills than the humanities, and the humanities more analysis. But to be truly “talented” at math, you need to be able to do analysis too– to draw connections between things and see the bigger picture. Do you think the same thing’s true of music, Meggan? I don’t have the experience to know. At any rate, it’s complicated!

      • Meggan says:

        I agree that it’s very complicated. The best, most effective musicians both as performers and teachers draw connections and see the big picture. I had a teacher who says that everything you need to know about playing the clarinet you could learn from The Karate Kid. I guess what I’m getting at is that just because someone seems to be good at something doesn’t mean that they can teach it. On the other hand, sometimes a person who isn’t remarkably good at something or who worked very hard to be passable at something is the best teacher to have. At least, up to a point.

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