Monday, September 10, 2012

Islands of Expertise: Implications for Early Childhood Learning

The Swimmer
It's not exactly that I didn't understand anything, but I did not understand a lot of the dinner conversation the other night.  At that time my husband, son and I were in a restaurant and perhaps the noise level contributed to my lack of understanding.  The truth though is much closer to the fact that I did not have adequate background knowledge to fully enter into the conversation.  I can't even recall the terms that were bantered about as all of the terms left my mind as quickly as they entered.  My son was schooling my husband and me on programming and the requisite hardware he has and wants to further acquire in his quest to do something with a computer. 

My son's academic discourse related to computers, programming, gaming, and digital know-how eclipses my own.  He has immersed himself for the last two years playing, making, doing, talking about, and engaging daily with others who share and deepen his interest in these technologies.  He has always been like this: passions develop across large spans of time and the domain specific discourse becomes integrated into his daily speech. In this process, he is not at all unusual.

Most parents I imagine can recall fondly the first passions their child experienced. Perhaps like me, you too recall the Thomas the Tank Engine passion which for us led to learning about, riding on, and coming to understand trains. This period, like all passions, was highly experiential. The Thomas Period arrived while my son was still a young toddler. His enthusiasm for all things that were trains informed many of our outings and decisions, books and movies (yes we sat through the Thomas movies over and over again). Alongside this period, my son also developed a passion about the inner ear. He was fascinated with an illustration of the inner ear that was in a oversized book he would cart around and well before he knew all his ABCs, he was fluent in inner ear discourse and would proudly discuss the cochlea, canals, incus, and Eustachian tube. He studied the illustration and asked question after question about how sound was heard and what in the ear facilitated sound.  He wanted to work out how hearing happens. About this same time, my husband was being fitted for a hearing device and I wonder now if the two were related.  My son's questions pushed us to learn more, to find connections to the ear in other activities we were doing as a family, and to incorporate domain-specific discourse into our conversations about hearing and the ear. We didn't do this to enrich him academically.  We did this because we naturally wanted to support his interest and often his interests sparked our own. Out of our shared inquiry the language we used became increasingly specific and mature.  This is what happens when children develop these islands of expertise.  the language we use with them, changes and becomes far more domain-specific than other types of talk we use when speaking with children.

Kids are quirky experts. If you have a child, I'm confident you know what I mean.  Just take a look at four-year-old Stella in the video below as she explains what is inaccurate with the toy dinosaur she is holding.  Notice especially how her father supports her learning by providing domain-specific language.

The first comment posted to the Stella video was by a palaeontologist who wrote this:

It's awesome seeing this. I'm a palaeontologist and this makes my heart soar. I've seen kids in museums are the ones who educate their teachers and parents in nomenclature - I know my brother and myself were like that. My brother could name more than 20 dinosaurs at the age of four (genus and species) and would correct our parents if they couldn't pronounce them. This is a parenting WIN in my opinion!
akhshai 8 months ago 3

So what's going here? What do we need to learn from this as teachers? Principals?

The Island of Expertise Theory

Kevin Crowley and Melanie Jacobs (2002) labeled this at home cognitive development that young children develop prior to attending school, islands of expertise.  They defined it as such:
An island of expertise is a topic in which children happen to become interested in and in which they develop relatively deep and rich knowledge. A typical island emerges over weeks, months, or years and is woven throughout multiple family activities.  Because of this, developing islands of expertise is a fundamentally social process. They are con-constructed through the ongoing negotiation of children and parents' interests, children and parents' choices about family activities, and children and parents' cognitive processes, including memory, inferencing, problem solving, and explanation. As children develop deeper knowledge, islands of expertise support conversations and learning that can be more advanced than would be possible in domains in which the child's knowledge is of a more typically sketchy nature (333-334).  
What is significant about these islands of expertise is that they facilitate abstract and general knowledge development.  Again Crowley and Jacobs explain:
....islands of expertise become platforms for families to practice learning habits and to develop, often for the first time, conversations about abstract  and general ideas, concepts, or mechanisms.  Even when a child loses interest and an island of expertise begins to fade, the abstract and general themes that used the island's rich knowledge as a launching pad, will remain connected to children's other knowledge (pp. 333-334).
The palaeontologist and Stella not only share some aspects of a scientific discourse, but more importantly they share similar processes they have used to develop this domain-specific language.
The expertise of both the interested child and adult scientist reflect repeated exposure to domain-specific declarative knowledge, repeated practice in interpreting new content, making inferences to connect new knowledge to existing knowledge, repeated conversations with others who share or want to support the same interest and so on (Crowley & Jacobs, p. 337).
James Gee (2005) in discussing the importance and potential implications of islands of expertise writes: 
Even young children learn best when they pick up "islands of expertise" (Crowley and Jacobs 2003). Whether those "islands" are model trains, toy dinosaurs, or Pok√©mon, they constitute centers of expertise that introduce learners to complex languages and the ways in which such languages are married to specific experiences, like gravity to a tossed coin. These experiences are then used to solve problems and answer questions. With authentic professionalism, "knowing" is not merely the mastery of facts; rather knowing involves participation in the complex relationships between facts, skills, and values in the service of performing a specific identity. Here, word and deed are united and the knower is a knower of specific kind—a type of active professional, not just a generic recipient of knowledge. 

School Implications

So when I think about Gee's comments and some of the inherent challenges related to the acquisition of school Discourse(s), I wonder about the efficacy of creating sustained occasions (like the first three years of school) where young children could follow/abandon passions across those years and become active professionals whose experiential learning would serve as a powerful scaffold that supported other newer learning.  If we tapped into these islands, we could unleash a learning power that would dazzle us and the failed practice of situating some children as 'being remedial' would feel odd, unnecessary. I have no doubt that the development of these discourses would lead to an easier acquisition of reading rather than the more forced manner that some children experience school-based learning to read lessons.

Works Cited
Crowley, K. and M. Jacobs. 2002. Islands of expertise and the development of family scientific literacy. In Learning conversations in museums, eds. G. Leinhardt, K. Crowley, and K. Knutson, 333-356. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Gee, J. 2005. What would a state of the artinstructional video game look like?. Innovate 1 (6). (accessed April 24, 2008). The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher, The Fischler School of Education and Human Services at Nova Southeastern University.

1 comment:

  1. Absolutely! And this speaks to how we underestimate what children are capable of "knowing." If children are allowed to explore, ask questions, encouraged to think critically and problem solve rather than have their heads crammed with "rote" learning (and yes, I know you are talking about facts, here, but the route that the children got from here to there is very important) chosen by "experts" who shut down the creative and critical learning process rather than risk losing control of their classroom environment or, heaven forbid! be asked a question they can't answer, well, this is a soapbox issue for me...let's please make learning fun and interesting for children, again. When was the last time you heard a child above the age of 5, say, tell you they loved school?