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Domain-generality and expertise development

It has been known for decades that experts in a particular domain of learning are more strategic in their thinking within that domain than are novices (see Dinsmore, Hattan, & List, 2018 for a meta-analysis). In addition, as already described, the strategic learning gains made by students who are on the path to expertise are hard-pressed to transfer across domains (Sprenger et al., 2013). However, one aspect of this issue that is less well understood is if, as individuals progress towards expertise, they become more capable of abstracting their developing domain- and task-strategies, or if the inverse is true: that the process of expertise development implies the deepening of strategic processing but does not significantly influence an individual’s capacity to apply those strategies across domains.

To use an analogy to explain this point, in their theoretical article on the question of “What is learning anyway?”, Alexander, Schallert, and Reynolds (2009) analogically likened the learning process to the process of topographical erosion from a river. In this analogy, learning experiences shape the mind of the learner much as the river erodes a landscape. Using this analogy, it is easy to imagine how certain experiences can have a deep and lasting effect on a student, much as a flood has a deep and lasting effect on a landscape, while other experiences have little effect. Further, it is also clear that certain individual differences within students make them more resistant orsensitive to learning from the environment, much as certain materials (e.g., rocks) are more resistant to influence from the river, while other materials (e.g., mud or sand) are more easily eroded. So, using this analogy, we can ask if the erosion-like process of expertise development must result in a steep domain-specific canyon, or conversely, if a wide domain-general flood-plain is also a possibility. For an individual learner whose knowledge was generalizable so as to analogically resemble a floodplain, would they be recognized as an expert within a particular domain of knowledge, or perhaps more importantly, as an expert participant within a discipline?

One commonly cited proposition that is relevant here comes from the very early days of research on the domain-generality of cognitive skills and abilities. Spearman’s law of diminishing returns states that, as expertise develops within a specific domain, the domain-general strategies and skills that supported their earlier thinking and learning (such as those that are applicable to traditional intelligence tests) become less and less relevant. This supposition has been supported by empirical findings many times since (see Blum & Holling, 2017 for a meta-analysis). To incorporate this tenet into Alexander and colleague’s erosion analogy, the development of expertise would be likened to the creation of a deep canyon. When a deep canyon is present on the landscape, new environmental forces such as rain are highly likely to be channeled through that canyon, focusing the erosion in one specific area. Following the analogy, if the learning process has created expertise within a particular domain, stimuli from the environment are highly likely to be interpreted in light of that expertise and be processed using strategies and skills that arise within that domain-specific learning. Using this line of theoretical reasoning, I would hypothesize that experts in a particular domain may not be any more likely than more novice students to transfer strategies and skills across domains. One likely exception to this pattern may lie with strategies that are specific to the domains of reading and writing, because they have high relevance across many domains and within nearly any discipline of expert practice (Graham, Harris, Kiuhara, & Fishman, 2017; McNamara, 2012).

 
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