When we think about the difference between novices and experts, usually we think about the distinctions between the products these two groups create. Experts compose lengthy, eloquent analysis with 1″ margins and double spaced lines. Novices write fragments and run-ons with little regard to presentation. Experts invent solutions to complex problems or develop scientific theories that illuminate important truths about how the world works. Novices craft “swiss-cheese” solutions, riddled with “holes” and problems of their own. Their theories are shallow or unfounded.

I can remember being shocked by the difference between novice and expert products at a 9th grade science fair. The model provided by the teacher was a simple, but clear and complete experiment about how differing amounts of water would affect a plant’s growth. The student products, however, were not so clear or complete. One student even tested the hypothesis that “there are more yellow Skittles than red Skittles in a single bag.” I remember thinking to myself, “I wonder how to get students to make their experiments more like the teacher’s example. What can we do to improve these products?”

But the better question, I have learned, is “What can we do to improve these processes?” Researchers at the University of Indiana have found that the major difference between novices and experts in a field is the thinking processes that each group applies when faced with new information. Experts don’t just come up with better ideas because of experience or depth of knowledge, they come up with better, more sophisticated ideas because the steps they take in their thinking are different.

Once educators can map out the thought processes of experts in their field, and also identify the patterns of thinking that students are currently using, they can shift student thinking by explicitly teaching and modeling the expert process. The model below comes from the Decoding the Disciplines project out of the University of Indiana:

The term “bottleneck” in this diagram refers to a major difference between novice and expert thinking, or a problem in novice thinking. For instance, a student whose science experiment is about the number of red and yellow Skittles is experiencing a bottleneck about viable scientific hypotheses. A scientist would never come up with such an experiment, but the student does not recognize how this hypothesis is off base.

We often see the results of a bottleneck in a student’s product, but the real root of the problem is in their process. The problem we face is that the expert thinking process is often invisible to the expert himself. The same way that one can drive a car without paying close attention to shifting gears, using turn signals, or checking the rear-view mirror, experts navigate their disciplines without making conscious moves to do so. A novice driver, and disciplinarian, on the other hand, needs to slow down to learn the expert moves in a conscious, deliberate way. The Decoding the Disciplines project and the cycle depicted above attempt to bring these expert moves into our consciousness and allow us to teach them directly.

So, next time your students’ conceptual products are not up to par, stop to consider the process they use to build their understanding. Compare this to your process as an expert. And follow the steps outlined in the cycle to push student thinking forward.