Surpassing Ourselves: An Inquiry into the Nature and Implications of Expertise
reviewed by Ralf Th. Krampe - 1995
Title: Surpassing Ourselves: An Inquiry into the Nature and Implications of Expertise
Author(s): Carl Bereiter, Marlene Scardamalia
Publisher: Open Court Publishing Company, Chicago
ISBN: 0812692055, Pages: 279, Year: 1993
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Carl Bereiter and Marlene Scardamalia have written an inspiring book that provides insight into experts' continuous struggle to go beyond what they have already achieved. No, the book is not another collection of anecdotes from biographies of heroic geniuses or a self-guide for the aspiring expert performer. Quite the opposite. Surpassing Ourselves is one of those rare books that are both solidly based on empirical research and develop scientific theories into ideas with striking practical implications for schooling and the development of society.
The authors give an accessible inside psychological view of problem solving and the characteristics of expert performance. The commonsense perception of expert performance and creative achievement as results of rare events taking place in unusually gifted individuals is shown in a convincing manner to be mistaken. This has been known in the scientific community for some time and here is where most research and theorists stop. Bereiter and Scardamalia extend the scope of their approach by turning the perspective from the expert individual to what they call the process of expertise. They show that expertise is largely a result of reinvesting mental capacities freed through the acquisition of working routines and skills into the search for new problems and approaches. The result of this reinvestment is progressive problem solving, a continued endeavor of setting new goals related to the development of deeper understanding. Bereiter and Scardamalia provide real-life examples showing how their notion of expertise differs from the narrow-minded specialists, on the one hand, and skillful management of familiar problems by reducing novel complications to known procedures, on the other. While the latter leads into the ruts of routine as in experienced nonexperts and many professionals, progressive problem solving results in expert learning. Expert learning is not a unique feature of acknowledged experts, but can be found in children and basically all forms of work without necessarily attaining public appraisal. It is the process or method of expertise, a different way of trying, that matters.
According to Bereiter and Scardamalia, schools are nonexpert societies, where the goals of understanding are deliberately made oblique for the students and transformed into tasks to be solved and ready knowledge to be acquired. Goal setting and transformation constitutes the very process of expertise and is institutionalized in teachers' roles and curricula in current schooling. In Surpassing Ourselves, a different approach is propagated, which the authors call knowledge-building communities. The concept is oriented toward collaborative structures as they are found in research groups, or corporate ventures in horizontal management structure. The school's major task according to this concept is to support a progressive knowledge-building discourse, which gets away from the Socratic teacher-student dialogue. In the context of their inspiring research project CSILE, Bereiter and Scardamalia have demonstrated one realization of a joint knowledge-building venture that could develop into a model case for classroom or even school settings.
Surpassing Ourselves takes a critical stance toward recent efforts at school reform. The argument should not obliterate the fact that teachers in the United States are poorly paid and that schools lack money for books and equipment. However, growing concerns about the efficacy of education have also emerged in countries like Germany, where education is free, school funding by the state is decent, and the life income, job security, and amount of leisure time enjoyed by high school teachers can hardly be matched by any other profession. A deeply entrenched belief in pedagogics and politics, the didactic perspective, seems to be that one must revise curricula as handbooks of social technology and put more skills into teachers' education, such as training them as psychologists or therapists.
Bereiter and Scardamalia point out that some children might utilize schooling as it is for expert learning purposes, namely those who have experienced the benefits of expert learning in their families or through independent intellectual ventures. One wonders about the negative implication of this argument, namely that turning schools into knowledge- building communities might be too late for those children who have already settled into the ruts of problem reduction of some kind. There might, after all, be limits to delegating education to institutions. Only a change of our perspective on education and learning on a larger scale might eventually meet the requirements of postindustrial societies. Here is where Bereiter and Scardamalia's vision of an expert society comes in. The expert society' is not one where everyone is an expert or where a few elitist experts coordinate the efforts of many routine workers, but rather one where expert learning is considered the normal goal and not the rare survivor of education. One can only hope that the book gets the attention it deserves.