Why Johnny Can’t Think Like a Scientist Until he is One

Experts Think Differently than Students

There has been a push in modern education to shift away from teaching kids about stuff (like facts & concepts & patterns) to attempting to teach them how to think like experts. Is such a thing possible? Can you think like an expert before you are one? Do experts become experts because they think differently than the rest of us? Are experts smarter than the rest of us?

(You are reading the sixth post in a series about cognitive science in your homeschool, click here for the introductory post and links to the other posts in this series.)

The answer to all of the above questions is no. There are no shortcuts to becoming an expert and that includes having the ability to think like one. If a novice could think like an expert, what would make them a novice? Let’s dive back into brain function so we can understand why the answer to all these questions is no. Then you can sleep easy at night, letting go of the worry that your 12-year-old does not think like a scientist but like a student.

Cognition early in training is fundamentally different from cognition late in training. Willingham

If we want to teach science, we have to actually teach a bunch of facts and concepts. We cannot teach the thought process of the scientist because the student’s brain does not have all of these concepts and facts to pull out of long-term memory like the expert does. When an expert thinks they are able to single out important details, come up with solutions that make sense and transfer their knowledge more easily to similar problems.

So should we make students practice singling out important details? It doesn’t work that way. The reason an expert can latch on to the important details is because they know so many details, their relative importance, and which details are going to be the most pertinent to the present problem. It is their vast background knowledge that makes them able to do this, while a student, even after a few years of study, cannot. It is this that separates the student from the expert. Background knowledge not only includes facts, but also concepts, patterns, and any routines that have been learned to the point of automaticity. Even sports experts think differently than trainees. Someone training to play football has to focus on the small details like throwing or catching the ball, while an expert needs less working memory for these tasks, because they have become automatic, and because of that they can study the field, the other team’s movements, and focus of the strategy of the game.

But the amount of knowledge is not the only difference between an expert brain and a student brain. The knowledge of an expert is stored differently in the brain. It is stored based on functions, or the deep structure of things, not on the apparent surface connections. Willingham gives a great example of this which makes it easy to understand. They studied how chess players memorize a gameboard. They had both novice and expert chess players look at a board with pieces set up in a mid-game type pattern. The researchers then gave the players blank boards and asked them to recreate the mid-game scenario.

All players put pieces down in clusters, placing four or five pieces quickly, then pausing to think. They all knew enough about chess that they were able to cluster the information in their memory. But one thing was very different between the groups. The novices had clustered pieces that were near each other on the game board, while the experts had clustered pieces that affected each other on the game board. The novice saw the surface of the game. But the experts saw the deeper structure, this piece can capture that piece, so they were clustered, no matter where they were on the board. The experts were thinking about connections between the pieces, not just their physical spacing.

We could say it very simply, experts are great abstract thinkers in their field. We have already learned how difficult it is to think abstractly in How to Foster Abstract Thought in Your Kids, and we learned there is no short cut to being able to think in this way. It requires lots of practice, lots of facts, lots of examples, lots of connections, lots of practice with surface patterns of thought before the deeper abstract ideas can be separated from their surface structure and understood on their own.

Because experts know so much, both in background knowledge, and automaticity gained by hours and hours of study and practice, they have a lot more free space in working memory. Space the student still needs to use in order to gain that background knowledge and automaticity. What do they do with that extra space? It turns out they talk to themselves. So you will never again feel crazy for having a conversation with yourself? Although a student may sometimes talk to themselves too, what and expert and student say to themselves is different.

An expert says things like; this problem belongs in the same category as all these other problems. Now how would I attack one of those problems? Will that work here?

A student may narrate aloud what they are doing.

It is almost like an expert can have a deep conversation with themselves, but the student can only talk.

Should we tell students to talk to themselves? That will not have any measurable benefit because they will not be able to talk to themselves like an expert does.

When top experts from various fields were given IQ tests, the shocking result was that none of them were scored genius. Sure they had a healthy IQ, but there was no off-the-charts trend. They also looked for similarities in the backgrounds of the experts. Here they found one defining similarity in all of the experts studied. They were, every one of them, workaholics. In other words, they practiced and worked and studied more than anyone else. This is what makes an expert an expert. Researchers also found that the experts do not tire of work as easily, they can keep going much longer without tiring and needing a break.

In Your Homeschool

We cannot teach our kids to be an expert in any field, whether it be science, history, or math. We can introduce them to many things, but it will only be by their love of a subject, and ability to work hard for a long time, that they will become an expert. The general rule is 8 hours a day for 10 years before you can be an expert, sometimes it is also called the 10,000 hour rule. There is no way around this rule. Sure, you can become an expert in fewer years if you work even more hours, and if you work fewer hours it will take you more years.

Your child is not focusing in on one thing, and the time for that is not usually childhood. This is why when a child does work with a furious passion from a young age, such as Mozart, we are all amazed and think they are born with genius. But even Mozart put in his time, and often child savants are not savants until they have put in their 10,000 hours.

This does not mean you need to panic about figuring our right now what your little 8-year-old will do with the rest of their lives so they can start working on it and have a leg up on everyone else.

It really does mean your kid can probably do whatever they want, as long as they are willing to put in the time. (I am not suggesting that every chosen field will bring them equal satisfaction, paychecks, and job security, just that they probably CAN, it is obvious to me that different children are much more suited to certain career paths, depending on temperament and personality. Also, the need for survival, and therefore money, is real.)

Students are ready to comprehend but not to create knowledge. Willingham

How often do we try to get our kids to think in ways that they are just not ready for yet? How often do we ask them to create, instead of allowing them to imitate? Experts create, students, learn. This is what both are meant to do. I am not suggesting you have to throw creativity out the window, but that we should be realistic in our expectations of what our kids’ brains can actually do. Students need time to work on understanding things, whereas experts need time to work on creating things.

But if we encourage creation without understanding, what do we have? Usually a big mess. If that big mess makes your kid happy, then go ahead and encourage it, getting kids excited matters. Just don’t think that mess is adding to their cognitive abilities, don’t demand creation. It sounds weird to say right there in black and white, but how many times have you come across an assignment that was attempting to demand your student create. Very open-ended and abstract assignments seem to be all the rage, but many students backlash against these because the assignments are so ambiguous and the student’s brains just are not ready for the kind of creation that is being demanded of them.

Students can learn facts.
Students can learn concepts.
Students can learn about processes, even if they can not use those processes themselves.

But students cannot think like experts because they aren’t experts and being an expert is a deep-level, abstract accomplishment which no one has ever figured out how to cheat out of the copious amounts of time required.

In conclusion, we cannot map the thought pattern of experts onto students brains. Students have to think they way they do because they are students, so we have to teach them like they are students, not like they are experts.

Every artist was first an amateur. Ralph Waldo Emerson

2 Responses

  1. […] Why Johnny Can’t Think Like a Scientist Until he is One […]

  2. […] Classical education is going deeper into learning and thinking when it leads the teen on this journey into rhetoric. But you can’t start here, which is where many people who argue against memorization wish to start. Deep learning first requires going through the shallows. For more about why your child can’t get to rhetoric before they have the basics down read Why Johnny Can’t Think Like a Scientist Until He is One. […]

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