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Specialists versus experts

March 1, 2013 in Uncategorized

In this week’s podcast, John talks about the difference between experts and specialists. As a piece of related reading we have taken an excerpt from John’s book, Unfinished Revolution, which expands on this relationship.

In Frederik Winslow Taylor’s book The Principles of Management, published in 1911, stated that:

“The primary, if not the only, goal of human labour and thought is efficiency; that technical calculation is in all respects superior to human judgement; that in fact human judgement cannot be trusted, because it is plagued by laxity, ambiguity, and unnecessary complexity; that subjectivity is an obstacle to clear thinking; that what cannot be measured either does not exist or is of no value; and that the affairs of citizens are best guided and conducted by experts.”

The deification of efficiency and of the specialist had begun.

Taylor began the cult of the specialist and there is a distinction to be made here between specialisation and expertise. This is vital to educational policymakers, for expertise enables transferable skills to move from one set of problems to another.

By working within the well defined parameters of a specialism, a specialist knows a subject from top to bottom. A specialist is the ultimate analyst who knows all the rules, all the tests and all the possible combinations and formulae. Authority rests on the depth of knowledge, and is uncluttered by the need to assess extraneous influences. Specialists exude a confidence in their competence and in some this comes through as arrogance. Discussion with such people is often difficult for they know all the answers “in their box”, and if you ask a question from a different box they are not interested. lust where their specialisms fit in a bigger synthesis docs not trouble them, for that is essentially unquantifiable, imprecise and highly uncertain.

There are no rules for that kind of they say, and so these questions are best left unanswered. A caricature perhaps, but the world has come quite rightly to be fearful of over-specialisation for, in some hard-to-define way, it does not seem “rea1”. Specialisms break the world down into bits, and such a reductionist approach gets us both individually and collectively, into trouble.

“Experts” in contrast, “tackle problems that increase their expertise,” whereas “[specialists] tend to tackle problems for which they do not have to extend themselves [by going beyond the rules and formulae they accept]. Experts indulge in progressive problem-solving, that is they continually reformulate a problem at an ever-higher level as they achieve at lower levels, and uncover more of the nature of the issue.

They become totally immersed in their work . . . and increase the complexity of the activity by developing new skills and taking on new challenges.

Experts are quick to grasp the overall situation; they synthesise rather than just focus on a single issue. Big issues fascinate them and – aware of what they don’t yet know rather than what is already known – they are open to different disciplines and questioning.

Experts understand the rules but they also know how to reformulate them and expand them to fit new circumstances. As opposed to continually fragmenting knowledge, experts seek a unification – “literally a ‘jumping together’ of knowledge as a result of the linking of facts and fact-based theory across disciplines to create a common groundwork of explanation”.

While specialisation with the – encouragement of Taylor and the behaviourists -has become a feature of modern society, it is not particularly natural to the human brain.

To repeat what we stated in the opening chapters, the brain has evolved over the millennia to be a multi-faceted, multi-tasked organism predisposed to thinking about new data and ideas from various perspectives. The brain works in terms of wholes and parts simultaneously and the glory of human learning is that it is essentially a complex, messy, non-linear process. The brain can, literally, do almost anything – but in its own way.



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