Chris Lakin

Teaching Expertise

Something that stuck with me from Peak by Anders Ericsson was that much, if not all, of expertise is pattern recognition.

In which case, how do we communicate pattern recognition through teaching?

When presented with a new problem, what patterns do you see? What ideas or leads come to mind? What do you pay attention to? What do you ignore?

In an expert, these are all highly-honed neural pathways. This is why experts don’t experience the overwhelming feeling of “Where do I put my attention?” when presented with a new problem, while novices do.

Perhaps many of the problems we face around teaching expertise occur because we don’t have a language for it. For this reason I think speaking in the language of pattern recognition can be fruitful.

If we want to improve our skills in an area, we should deliberately focus on developing our recognition of patterns in that area.

One way to do this is to ask an expert to articulate their thoughts in real time as they’re presented with a new problem. What pops out at you? What do you focus on? What do you tend to ignore? What specific information primed you to generate each hypothesis that came to mind?

However, the ability to articulate useful answers to these questions is a rare skill.

When explanations fail to explain

Some of the problems in my classes require the use of pattern recognition that isn’t explicitly taught. When I ask someone to explain the solution to one of these problems, they’ll explain the solution—but often they won’t explain the pattern recognition necessary to generate the solution anew.

Almost everyone—except the best professors—fails to helpfully articulate why they thought to do the things that solved the problem.

Instead, the explanation is usually akin to “well if you do this thing then it works”. (Gee, thanks.)

But why did you do that thing, and nothing else? The set of possible actions was infinite—what led you to choose that specific option? What implicit information did you see in the problem? What specifically primed you to see the things you saw?

It’s funny— finding the ‘trick’ of a problem is usually the only difficult part, yet we often fail to dwell on the process and pattern recognition necessary for discovering the trick autonomously.

Why does this occur?

For one, we don’t usually have a language that would allow us to talk explicitly about the development of expertise.

Secondly, I suppose much of this is due to the curse of knowledge—once something is obvious to you, it’s difficult to simulate your prior mind-state when the thing wasn’t so obvious. At some point something clicks, and then we forget what made it click. Because of this, good, empathetic explanations can be difficult to create.


For these reasons, I deliberately try to ask for the pattern of thought that lead to recognizing the solution, rather than asking merely for an explanation of the solution.

It seems that asking these questions is at least slightly more helpful, but it still usually fails often because the person I’m asking a) isn’t actually an expert; b) had merely memorized the trick anyway; or c) is not correcting for the curse of knowledge.

So, for now, my test to determine whether someone is truly an expert and skillful teacher is to ask them to explain their pattern recognition for solving problems.

Other thoughts


Posted 2020 November 21, last updated 2020 November 25.