Learning Experiences: An Adaptive Expertise Primer

In looking at all the philosophical perspectives about what education for the future looks like, I keep coming back to a concept that I was exposed to a couple years back when visiting The Cannon School in North Carolina.

Central to their educational philosophy was the concept of adaptive expertise.  Upon exposure, I went on a near obsessive, doctoral style research and consumption odyssey to become as expert in this area as possible.I was very impressed with the school, its mission, and the people, so I decided to immerse myself in the literature available on the concept that is at the core of who they are as a school. As with many other “new” concepts, I found such connection to existing philosophies in my catalog.  Yet I also was able to expand my philosophical horizons and research interests in the rich soil that the literature provided.   My process, as always, included not just reading great material, but also annotating, synthesizing, creating, writing, and implementing the new ideas into my current contexts.

There were two seminal pieces that helped me to glean some basic understandings of the concept, but also had enough depth and complexity for me to go further as I felt the need, desire, and opportunity.  The original research was conducted by Giyoo Hatano in the mid 1980’s.  His work “Two courses of expertise” (Hatano, 1986) is the most highly referenced on the concept.  The second source that helped me dive deeper and strengthen the complexity of my understanding, while also admittedly challenging my comprehension and synthesis skills, is Susan Sherringham’s  (2007) “Designing for the future :anadaptive expertise and organizational learning in design”.

Adaptive experts have rich content knowledge, routine expertise, and opportunities to solve novel problems that develop an adaptive expertise. Since learning happens in both social and cultural contexts, socio-cultural conditions and considerations must be factored into the development strategies.  One of the exciting parts of the Sherringham (2007) piece is that the field of design is the discipline to which the concept of adaptive expertise is applied.  This area of design, while seemingly new to me at the outset of my process, resonated with me on such a deep level because so many of us are designers in our chosen field. I was easily able to translate what the design components meant in terms of educational design.  Designers are essentially the catalysts for generating new ideas and shaping innovative change.  Future designers design for the unknown in constantly changing/ shifting contexts ( As Jose Esteves reveals in his updated video Shift Happens,  we need these designers as today’s learners are going to be solving problems that don’t exist yet, using tools that don’t exist yet).  Thus adaptive expertise is evolution, it is organic,innovative, dynamic and living.

Sherringham (2007) explains the difference between routine and adaptive expertise as,  adaptive expertise is “characterized by flexible, innovative, and creative competencies within a domain rather than speed, accuracy, and automaticity of solving familiar problems”.

In his initial paper, Hatano (1986) presented 6 points.  In my process, I looked at how each point was relevant to education, independent schools, and schools where I have worked.

His first point states that experts possess rich and well-structured domain knowledge that can be readily used.  From this point, I asked the questions: What is the knowledge (who decides? How and when is it taught? How is it practiced, reinforced, assessed so that it becomes “readily usable”)?   My takeaway regarding how this point is relevent in education is that vertical teaming is integral, not just for scope and sequencing of content/skills, but also with instructional strategies, student activities, and assessment practices.  Further, the teaming should not only be vertical, but also horizontal across different disciplines at the same grade or divisional levels.  Knowing the big picture creates opportunities to develop cross-domain expertise.

Hatano’s (1986) second point states that gaining expertise requires years of experience solving problems in a specific domain.  This point brings Duckworth’s Grit and Ericsson’s 10,000 rule to mind.  For educators, we need to nurture the grit, the passion for practice, while also being strategic in our planning.  For instance, how well do we sequence problems while continuing to keep our students in the Vygotskian Zone of Proximal Development?  How well do we develop, implement, review, revise and apply language, process and evaluation? The answer once again seems to be found in vertical teaming practices.

The third point states that the acquisition of knowledge and skills is accompanied by socio-emotional changes.  As a long-time middle school educator, this point is integral.  High attention must be paid to the social emotional development of our students.  It is part of the curriculum, part of the integral relationships, and central to student success and well-being.  Maslowian philosophies must be present for students to grow, succeed, and be happy, confident, and resilient in the process. Further,  as social emotional changes occur, interests change rendering differentiation an essential practice.  Teachers understanding these changes, and how to adjust strategies, activities, content etc to fit students needs is necessary for student success.  Here the horizontal communication and 360 degree attention to the whole child through regular shared observations makes for better experiences for the students, and a lower possibility that a student will fall through the proverbial crack.

The fourth point in Hatano’s (1986)work is one that resonated with me on a very deep level, and for those who have read this blog, the connection will be obvious.  Point four states that the process of gaining expertise is assisted and supported by other people and artifacts.  Relationships are once again, at the center of the process of gaining expertise.  Support, nurturance,  and encouragement, coupled with attention to keeping students in the aforementioned ZPD through differentiation are central to the fourth point.  Hands-on manipulative-based learning, project based (service) learning, and interdisciplinary work all fill the needs outlined in this area.

That expertise occurs in socioculturally significant contexts, represents the fifth of Hatano’s (1986) points.  This point resonates the PBL-minded educators who also have been pioneers in the service learning program development process.  Learning is not (should not be) separated from solving socially significant problems and performing tasks that have social relevance.  I previously outlined the idea of problem-based service learning that this point seems to support.  Further,  differentiating according to interests has some roots in this point as most of our interests come from the sociocultural contexts that we have experienced during our lives.

Finally, Hatano (1986) states that expertise is distributed.  It is shared, used purposefully, meaningfully, and strategically.  Teachers share with students, with each other and with parents.  Students share with each other, and leaders share with the whole community.  This distributive sharing of expertise enriches a learning community, and inspires in all members the integral growth mindset.

Over the course of my process with this concept, I have delved deeply into the literature available, discussed fervently with experts and novices alike, synthesizes based on my own experiences, created (such as with this blog) products that reflect this synthesis, and have shared with others my knowledge about this concept. I am certainly not an adaptive expert in adaptive expertise, but through deliberate practice, application to familiar and novel contexts, and with great grit, verve, and passion, I may get there some day.  If I don’t, as always, I will truly enjoy the process and journey.


Hatano, G. and K. Inagaki (1986). “Two courses of expertise.” Child development and education in Japan: 262–272.

Sherringham, Susan (2007). “Designing for the future : nadaptive expertise and organizational learning in design” University of Technology Sydney, NSW, Australia


One thought on “Learning Experiences: An Adaptive Expertise Primer

  1. I am looking forward to meeting you. As an educator with big-picture oversight as well as detail orientation (not contradictory, I assure you) I whole-heartedly agree with the vertical/horizontal approach to both the individual child and the curriculum. I am intrigued by the newer ideas of transferring organizational design to the educational setting. One of my graduate case studies was the break up of AT&T and how the employees were personally affected by the culture shift. I do believe we must remember that, as we attempt to shift the culture of content delivery and evaluation, we must keep in mind the socio-emotional reactions of our young charges. I’m confident you will have much to offer in this ongoing conversation. I’ll be adding your resources to my ever-growing reading list! (A fabulous problem to have.)

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