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.