Novices, Experts, Forests, and Trees – Lessons from the Back of the Napkin

Back in June (which feels so very long ago), I did a series of posts on applications to teaching from Dan Roam’s book, The Back of the Napkin. I’ve got at least one more post about Roam’s book in me, and this one deals with the differences between novices and experts.

In Chapter 5 of his book, Roam tells the story of Lila, a training manager coming into a new organization, a company selling high-end chocolate. The company had a variety of existing practices for training new and veteran employees alike, and Lila’s task was to refine those practices and scale them up as the company expanded significantly. But when Lila requested information on the company’s training practices from the existing training team, she was overwhelmed with materials–course outlines, lesson plans, calendars, org charts, test results, you name it. It was clear that her new team knew their training practices inside and out because they had an answer to all of her questions. She just couldn’t understand those answers because she lacked the big picture of the training initiatives at the chocolate company.

Enter Dan Roam, visual problem solver. He spent the day with Lila and her team, walking them through his 6W framework–who / what, how much, where, when, how, and why. (See my earlier post for a few more details on this framework.) During the course of the meeting, the big picture that Lila needed became clear through a series of drawings including bar graphs, timelines, flow charts, and doodles. Finally, Lila could see the forest for the trees, which let Lila and her team move forward.

Reading this story, I couldn’t help but imagine my calculus students sitting in Lila’s position, overwhelmed by graphs, formulas, theorems, and all the info typically packed into a calculus course. That put me in the position of Lila’s new team, since I know how to connect all those bits of calculus into a coherent whole. The challenge for me, as it was for Lila’s team, is to communicate that big picture and help my students integrate all those formulas and theorems into a well-organized mental model of differential and integral calculus.

The cognitive science literature, particularly the classic How People Learn, tells us that experts in a particular domain think differently than novices do.

  • Experts organize their knowledge in ways that support both recall and understanding.
  • Given that organization, experts can quickly retrieve knowledge relevant to a problem at hand.
  • For the same reason, experts notice patterns that novices often don’t and can slot new information easily into their existing mental models.
  • All of this allows experts to respond adaptively to new situations, transferring their knowledge and skills to new contexts with relative ease.

Here’s an example of an expert at work that illustrates these ideas:

Notice how this expert knows the big picture in her domain? And how this enables her to see patterns and solve problems that mystify the novice in this example? (Betcha didn’t think I’d work in a Devil Wears Prada clip on this blog…)

How can we help our students develop the kinds of mental models and big pictures that will help them move from novices to experts? Dan Roam would argue that visual thinking can help, and I’m inclined to agree. Here’s an example from an undergraduate course…

Last year, Ayla Pamukcu, one of the grad students in the Teaching-as-Research Fellows program I helped facilitate, noted how much the students in her Earth Materials lab struggled to identify unknown minerals. To help her students better understand the concepts involved in this task and apply that understanding more effectively, she had them create flow charts describing the steps frequently taken in the process of identifying an unknown mineral. The flowcharts started out very simple and not very helpful, but as the students refined their flowcharts over the course of several weeks, many of the student flowcharts became quite sophisticated, reflecting a big picture understanding of the ideas involved in this task that was made evident by the students’ performance on mineral identification tasks near the end of the semester. The better student flowcharts looked a lot like the flowchart that Dan Roam created for Lila and her team seen on page 93 of his book!

How might visual thinking, particularly visual tools that show the relationships between ideas, help your students see the forest for the trees in your courses?

Image: “Magic! between the trees” by Flickr user fatboyke, Creative Commons licensed

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