Overstating The Perils Of Expertise

Darren Kuropatwa:

You can’t be a change agent if you’re an expert. [..] Experts have a different aura about them. That aura of expertise is intimidating for neophytes. The aura of “not quite an expert”, the sense of newness associated with someone learning something they’ve just learned, is motivating for newbies. We need less experts, more neophytes. Actually, a constant influx of neophytes to provide a continuous stream of models to engage new learners.

Having had my own crisis of faith, recently, I can concede most of Darren’s premise while at the same time criticizing his conclusion as overly defeated. As Larry Bird became Larry Bird, were more or less people inspired to take up a basketball? Larry Bird became a figure of aspiration, which is what Darren is to a lot of educators. But Larry Bird, to a greater degree than most aspirational figures in the NBA, was also an educational figure, collaborating with coach Red Auerbach on several volumes of video tutorials.

Darren thinks his situation requires more novices when instead it requires better experts. Hungry experts. Experts who empathize with the novice, who constantly re-evaluate their own assumptions from the perspective of a novice, who get outside their own heads as much as possible and as often as possible. This is the fun and the challenge of what we do.

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. Wouldn’t it be great if we had teachers who were truly experts, but didn’t go around acting all expert-y about their skills? Teachers who are still excited about their own & the students’ learning?

    Maybe even teachers who don’t stand up & preach their bountiful knowledge . . . y’know, teachers who are “less helpful”?

    That would be cool.

  2. Maybe it’s about never feeling like an expert even as you gradually become one, never forgetting the really painful early days in the classroom, and maintaining a continual sense of wonder that you do what you do– or perhaps this is just the more anxious version of the empathetic expert you describe.

  3. Isn’t there a difference between Larry Bird and the teacher just down the hall?

    Larry Bird made me want to be a better basketball player when I was 8 and he was a Celtic, but I’m not so sure he inspired all the other Celtics and NBA players at that time. Why? They had to play next to him, in his shadow.

    Likewise, when the expert is the teacher just down the hall, it’s a little harder to get inspired. When staff meetings and board meetings, water cooler discussions, and so on, feature all these great things they are doing with their classes, inspiration gets overshadowed by resentment.

    And it’s not the so-called expert’s fault, but it doesn’t matter, once a wall has been built, the wall is there. And, the last time I checked, a hungry, empathetic expert with a sledge hammer is slightly more intimidating than one with out.

  4. I really liked Clint’s summary of what I was trying to get at, and that seems to be what you are responding to here. However, Mr. Kimmi above really nails it. It’s the whole “you can’t be a prophet in your own home” kind of thing; that is, if you’re seen as some sort of expert. Newbies don’t suffer from this phenomenon; they’re more inspirational to the people around them.

    I think we need to have experts around, but we also need the inspiration of newbies. Constantly.