Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

EDITORIAL: The Role of Expertise

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

EDITORIAL: The Role of Expertise

Article excerpt

IT IS OFTEN said that specialization is a "necessary evil." These days, though, I've reluctantly begun to emphasize the "necessary" over the "evil." For a dyed-in-the-wool generalist, those are hard words to write.

For years, I've told people that being on the staff of a general interest journal such as the Kappan means that, whatever expertise you might have brought with you when you came on board, you soon feel as if your own knowledge is a mile wide and an inch deep. And because the range of topics is so broad and because those who write for us are indeed experts in what they write about -- whether it's their individual school or the history of U.S. education or different research methodologies -- that isn't such a bad thing.

The differences between an expert's understanding and that of an amateur can be small and relatively inconsequential in some areas but large and potentially serious in others. I used to play varsity soccer as an undergraduate -- perhaps not all that well but very enthusiastically. Some years later, while browsing the stacks of a university library, I came across a thesis (a master's thesis as I recall) in physical education that sought to determine the optimum angle from which to shoot on goal. What the author demonstrated quantitatively was in complete agreement with what I and every other player and fan already knew by intuition: you'll improve your chance of scoring as the angle between your shot and the end line approaches 90 degrees. In other words, shoot from directly in front of the goal! No real difference here between expert and amateur. What the thesis did was establish the validity of conventional wisdom.

But as Henry Braun and Robert Mislevy make eminently clear in this month's cover article, general understandings go only so far, and in the case of the more technical subject areas -- such as their specialty, assessment -- that's often not far enough. …

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