Nostalgia for Retrieving Naiveté

In the Benander article, the author contends that “experts negotiate the learning space differently from novices.’ Reflect on your own experiences with that. Compose a reflective essay to describe the differences you’ve observed between novices and experts in your field.

I am troubled by the notion of returning to naiveté.  What is a “novice’?  If by “novice’ we are talking only about content then it is indeed possible to return to that point repeatedly.  If by “novice’ we mean, to use Benander’s term the “confusion of novelty’ then we have to presuppose that our skills at learning to learn do not transfer along with our ignorance of content.  Speaking from my experience, I would say that any inquiry informed by reading and writing; for me philosophy and literature first and business and IT second, are similar enough that strategies transfer and I cannot get to naiveté.  However, was I to try to learn a foreign language, math, or hard science I would suffer to some degree “confusion of novelty’ but even here, I remain unconvinced that that is a return to pure naiveté.  This because I believe that study techniques, psychological fortitude, and self-reflection, would carry me as they have in the past — and that is something that a complete novice, pure naiveté, cannot know.  I know I can learn to learn whereas the “true novice’ (if she exists) is drowning in content and learning to learn simultaneously.  Benander invokes experiential learning as a site that levels the playing field between novice and expert.  I am unconvinced.  I am unconvinced in part because for Benander “experiential learning’ is always only an abstraction.  In Benander’s paper, there is no real work and no particular subject.  Let me offer the example of the work I am engaged in right now, the training of student employees to work at a library service desk.  Some of these students have never worked at a job before — they are “novices’ at both learning to work and the content of this particular work.  Some of the students have worked before as wait staff, or summer camp staff, or in family businesses.  I can train those students to a higher level of performance faster than a “complete novice’ and this is because I can focus on content.  With a “complete novice’, I have to help them make association between other parts of their lives and this new one of work — sports, school work, volunteer activities, etc.  I have to help them create context to situate the content, their experience as a customer, values, appropriate workplace boundaries, dress, communication, accountability to co-workers and supervisors, and so on.  I am facilitating their learning to learn in an experiential context.  Yet wait if they have these other contexts that I can connect to they cannot be said to be complete novices or pure naiveté. Rather they are less practiced at drawing the connections between process and content.  If I do my work well they will never completely return to naiveté (as if they could).  They will continue on to their next experiential environment and they will do well to hold their model of learning to work at arm’s length in order to reflect and refine it simultaneously to learning the new content — but that is not returning to being a novice, to pure naiveté. Indeed Benander says, “Experts have a different orientation not only to their subject matter, but also learning about their subject matter.’  If the moment of mastery were analogous to a light switch on or off then perhaps, we can make some sense of the return to naiveté.  The switch would be on in one situation and off in another.  However, we know from our experience and observation that learning is not all or nothing.  We see in a 5 year old an already well-developed ability to learn to learn, they have learned to walk, to run, to dance by themselves and with others.  They have learned to laugh, to talk, and some to read — they are well along the path to learning to learn.  Rather I think the stumble is the notion of “experts’.  When I was studying martial arts, one of the stories we told each other was that mastery took 10,000 repetitions.  Yet, we never were under the illusion of being able to master everything.  Is mastery and expertise the same?  Let us pretend that it is for the sake of this essay.  Part of mastery is the creative reinterpretation of small number of techniques one has mastered in an ever widening and increasing sphere of… experiential learning, or testing the techniques in different situations. For example, I can use a down block to parry an incoming horizontal attack between waist and knee.  My block may be open hand, defensive use of a weapon, or with a parry device, i.e. shield — the defensive movement is the same for any attack along that line.    Part of the fun of learning is the risk, the potential for failure.  The adrenalin high of the edginess of being outside one’s comfort zone this maybe the nostalgia that truly informs Benander’s article.  This is again why sparring is such a great place to test mastery precisely because the stakes are high.    Interestingly, many successful mixed martial artists are mid-level practitioners of two or three martial arts — rather than experts in one, (this insight stresses our definition of “expert” particularly in the realm of experiential learning).    A handful of techniques from each discipline and a ton of experiential learning, i.e. sparring make them extremely adaptable and fast learners, or else unconscious, and or in pain.  Feedback is immediate and harsh on failure.  Instead, returning to the claim, “Experts have a different orientation not only to their subject matter, but also learning about their subject matter.’ What if we are remembering the high of the “confusion of novelty’ and want to have it repeatedly and yet we know it is impure tainted by what we have learned about learning.  So instead what I see Benander asking about is bitter veterans, nostalgic for the rush of learning and seeking that in new content rather than in refining and extending their learning to learn.  That I think is the far harder and more interesting task continuing to learn to learn after we are “experts.’


2 thoughts on “Nostalgia for Retrieving Naiveté

  1. Lori

    So important are those first bits of advice about how to take on the new role of being an employee! Your description of how you train employees based upon their experience in the workplace is a very interesting parallel to how we teach students in the classroom.

    You can’t undo experience, and so the idea of walking a mile in our students’ “novice” shoes is a bit of a stretch. I find the more I research the science of learning, the more meaningful observations I can make about how my students learn… which creates a new way of evaluating and crafting my own teaching.

  2. Owen

    Hi Bob,

    You raise several great points. We can never return to real naiveté. Which is probably only pure and true somewhere before we even realize we’ve begun to realize anything.

    And I like your choice to identify two types of novice. The content novice and the knowing-how-to-learn novice. The latter type is much more challenging for us as educators. In this course, I am fortunate in that my students are generally very skilled at knowing how to learn and are relatively easy to work with. All I have to do is provide a guide or a program for the content. Others are much more challenging. In my K-12 experience in remedial math and science, I almost needed to give my students a guide to the guide.

    I find your concluding question satisfying. I tend to like questions more than answers and I particularly like your final point. It leads me to the question – is there an upper limit? Can we become experts at learning how to learn? Is it possible to get to a point where all that is left is the “rush of learning … in new content”?

    Nice piece.



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