When Does the Novice Have the Upper Hand?

Weekly Writing 1 – Lori Sowa

As a faculty member teaching many of the same courses year after year, the material and connections between concepts becomes more and more clear to me. However, my students arrive in the classroom each year with approximately the same amount of knowledge. Therefore, it becomes increasingly difficult to remember how foreign these concepts were to me at first, and how long it takes to make the deep and meaningful connections I am hoping my students will achieve.

But when do novices actually have the upper hand? Are there times when experts are at a disadvantage — with too much knowledge and experience getting in the way? And how can we learn from novices?

As a professor of engineering, I get the privilege of introducing my students to the engineering design cycle. In my introductory courses, we start with straw towers, move through Rube Goldberg devices, and finally design and build energy collection systems. But, of course, this is not the first time they have designed an object or a process. They have been doing it their whole lives! But have they become more or less creative through the years?

Watching my own young children, I see them devise highly creative ways to fulfill their needs. They have fantastic ideas about how the world works, why things are the way they are, and what they want to build. Fast forward 15 years, and the students in my freshman engineering class — when asked to come up with novel design ideas — are stymied at the thought, and sometimes have a hard time coming up with any ideas at all. I overhear them saying things like “that wouldn’t work’, or “I’m not sure if that would be an important function’, even in the early stages of brainstorming. Their knowledge about how the world works, and society‘s view of that world, can be quite a hindrance to the creative process.

How do we break through these barriers to regain creativity? We ask the experts, of course.

One method I have used to help students (including me!) overcome these barriers and inspire creativity is based upon research in design heuristics conducted by a diverse team of engineers, designers, and psychologists from the University of Michigan and Iowa State University. Shanna Daly, et al. (2012) studied expert designers by having them talk aloud throughout the process of designing a product. They distilled this information into a number of prompts that can be used to expand our design space from the initial, obvious ideas to more diverse, perhaps even far-fetched ideas that come closer to true innovation. This is but one particular method, but a great example of how understanding how experts and novices perform differently can benefit the learning, or in this case designing, process.

Reflecting on the idea of novice and expert learners, I wonder how these expert designers developed their own process. Did they somehow retain the novice designer approach from childhood, or knowingly develop the process to overcome such obstacles as fixation and evaluation? Regardless, it is a good reminder that as educators we can benefit from trying to understand how both novices and experts approach problems.

DALY, S. R., YILMAZ, S., CHRISTIAN, J. L., SEIFERT, C. M., & GONZALEZ, R. (2012). Design Heuristics in Engineering Concept Generation. Journal of Engineering Education, 101(4), 601-629.

5 thoughts on “When Does the Novice Have the Upper Hand?

  1. Bob

    I like very much that you bring consciousness of children into your theorizing. Situating children beside “experts” in innovation is beautiful.

    Alas, I worry deeply about our college first-years. Perhaps less so among the privileged class. My sample with that demographic extends over 20 years though not in the classroom but in the workplace. With the working class, with public schools, my sample is limited, but, in watching my own children struggle with public high school, their friends struggle, and their cohort struggle with the conflation of teaching and learning, assessment with facility, certification with knowledge. The institution itself grinding curiosity and imagination out of them in so many ways. Yet their resilience of spirit too as they created circles of like minded friends, engaged in creative pursuits, and forms of expression — it is almost like the institution is bound and determined to force learning into all other venues of life. Undermining its’ own function and role in our communities.

    1. Owen

      Your words resonate clearly with me, Bob. I have two daughters finishing high-school and starting college this year. Learning in an institution with a whole array of superimposed objectives certainly muddles the process of personal inquiry. I have seen them both ground, a bit, by the institution. … Here’s hoping for resilience of spirit.

  2. Owen

    Nice post.

    I agree with Bob that I like how you bring children into the mix. You’ve probably heard of the studies of scholarship regarding career longevity and achievement? Mathematicians, and physicists tend to have their greatest career achievements early in their career. The thinking is that moments of insight and breakthrough occur when perspectives are fresh and new. Whereas historians and and naturalists tend to have their greatest achievements late in their careers – when connections coalesce among accumulated years of information gathering. This is a generalization, of course, but I have known many professionals who have mostly conformed to the trend.

    This is a great question, “Did [expert designers] somehow retain the novice designer approach from childhood, or knowingly develop the process to overcome such obstacles as fixation and evaluation?” I wonder about the difference between “expert” creators, such as writers and painters, vs. “expert” knowledge containers/pursuers? Maybe children are more familiar within the space of “doing”?


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