Are You Experienced?

I’ve been reflecting on the concept of *being experienced* at something–be it teaching, event planning, blogging, singing, reading, or doing the dishes.  There is a big difference between having done something once or twice, and being experienced or skilled at the same activity, but this can be easy to forget from far away.  I’ve actually caught myself thinking that I *know how to do* something I have never actually done–just because I know I could do it if I wanted to, and maybe even imagine how I’d do it!  With so much information and efficiency at our fingertips all the time with the ubiquitous internet, the possibilities for what we can do if we choose to are overwhelming.

But this does not mean we actually know how to do these things or will be able to do them well when the time comes.  Anyone can study a new language, create their own website, learn to garden, or start a home recording studio these days.  With a fairly small financial cost, anyone can take some first steps by purchasing a language course, a domain name, some gardening tools, or audio recording software. So many things can be ours at a moment’s notice if we want them…

Experience, however, is not available at our fingertips.  Cannot be bought or downloaded (hired, perhaps, yes).  Experience comes with time, commitment and repetition.  Knowing that we could do something and actually doing it are totally different animals.  Take something as seemingly simple as hiring a caterer for a party (something I recently had to do for the first time). Any adult can do this.  But if you are experienced at it, you’ll know what you need, what to look out for, what questions to ask, how to ask them…

There are little or big hurdles in everything that impact both efficiency and quality.  Even the most mundane things take time to learn and understand. Doing the dishes, for example–anyone can do them, but with experience, you get better and faster at it. You learn which sponge to use with the pots versus the glasses, which detergent works best and doesn’t dry your hands out. You even learn how to load the dishwasher most effectively if you have one.  No matter how smart or savvy we are, we can’t become instantly experienced.  And experience is worth a lot when you are striving to be good, great, or amazing at something.  Malcolm Gladwell wrote in Outliers about the 10,000 hour rule–the amount of time it takes to become an expert in anything.

Clearly I’m writing about this because it has implications for teaching.  

I’ve noticed that my middle school learners sometimes confuse having a basic understanding of how to do something–or knowing they could if they tried–with being experienced or skilled at it. In the subject of English Language Arts, while ideas and content can change, many of the skills students must learn are the same from year to year.  However, they get stronger and more experienced at them.  I want to help my students get a sense of just how much power comes with being experienced in the tasks that ELA requires of us.  In order for students to be able to truly learn from their experiences, we have to provide opportunities for authentic experience in the classroom.  This must include space to try out ideas, make mistakes, and pull out lessons from them. How does more experience change your process?  What new things do you focus on as you become more experienced? We should be asking students these questions.

Likewise, the notion of expertise in teaching is something teachers need to get much more comfortable identifying in ourselves and others, knowing its value, and acting accordingly. Expertise, which cannot emerge without experience, is also something that education policy makers need to begin supporting structurally.  Schools and school systems need to figure out how to learn from the expertise that is in their midst and support teachers and leaders to develop tinto experts.  We can’t afford to stop at  anything less. One resource that helps reveal a way toward for education leaders to support and utilize the expertise and leadership skills of teachers is the brand new book, Teacherpreneurs: Innovative Teachers Who Lead But Don’t Leave.


  • marsharatzel

    Air playing vs real playing

    Dear Ariel,

    This concept is very closely related to a comparison Alan Kay has used.  He thought computers would help students become better thinkers—probably because he saw them as a means for exploration and a way to test out ideas.  Instead we have chosen to use computers to do Word, PowerPoint, gaming….things that entertain and distract us from the real business of thinking.

    His analogy is the difference between learning to play the guitar VS learning to Guitar Hero.  I think he would say that we’ve gotten lost in our journey…thinking both are the same…..rather than realizing that it takes loads of time, years of practice to master the real thing.  And if what you really want is to be an expert in air guitar, that’s fine.  But you should confuse expertise in one for expertise in the other.

    In order to learn to play the real thing or to write or anything that is the real deal, I agree with your idea that you have to work at it, make mistakes, learn from those, and have time.  It’s hard to find that expertise in 43 minute chunks.  It’s hard for students to find the time it takes to develop that expertise in their overscheduled, rush from one thing to the next thing lifestyles.

    We can do it.  But it will take a change of vantage point and shifting of values.  Totally worth doing.