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How knowledge is structured for experts: If-then statements

Knowing how knowledge is structured is the first step to helping our students to master it

When you go into a classroom and ask students what they’re learning, what kind of answers do you usually get?

If you don’t get a, ‘Don’t know’, you may get a response like this:

  • Chemistry: ‘We are doing titrations’

  • Biology: ‘We are doing quadrant sampling’

  • Mathematics: ‘We’re doing Pythagoras’ theorem’

  • Art: ‘We are using the vanishing point technique’

This is great, but it doesn’t necessarily help the students know the why and the when of their learning.

Instead, we can leverage the knowledge structures of experts to achieve this goal. Read on!

As teachers, our primary role is to help novice learners to acquire the knowledge of experts.

In order to do this effectively, we need to know what those knowledge structures look like.

An oft-overlooked knowledge structure that encapsulates much of the knowledge of experts if the humble if-then statement. This statement takes the following basic structure:

If I want to achieve outcome Y, then I can take action X

Here are some examples from a variety of disciplines:

  • If a graphic designer wants to emphasize text in a layout but avoid using bold or italics, then they can increase the letter spacing for added emphasis.

  • If a musician wants to transition smoothly from a bright, happy key to a dark, sad key, then they can use a pivot chord that is common to both keys.

  • If an architect wants to maximize natural light in a room without increasing window size, then they can install a light shelf to reflect sunlight deeper into the space.

What’s even more interested is that these if-then statements can be nested to represent thee deepening knowledge of an expert.

For example, a novice musician may be aware of the following: ‘If a musician wants to have a song that makes people feel happy, then they can write it in a major key’

As they continue their learning journey, they may build upon this to learn: ‘If a musician wants to generate a mood shift in listeners from happy to sad, then they can change from a major to a minor key’

Further experience may reveal to them that: ‘If a musician wants to transition smoothly from one key to another, then they can use a pivot chord that is common to both keys’

And an expert would know that: ‘If a musician to change from C Major to A Minor, then they could use one of seven possible pivot chords: A maj, D min, E min, F maj, G maj, A min, B dim’

All of this knowledge is stored as if-then statements. And these statements are ‘nested’, representing deeper and deeper, more and more detailed knowledge.

So, how does all this help us with our teaching?

Well, it helps us to recognise that those students who answered that they were ‘doing titrations’ or ‘doing Pythagoras’ theorem’ were lacking key information. Instead, we want them to know not only what they’re doing, but the ‘if’ and the ‘then’ that it’s related to.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could ask students, ‘What are you learning today? ‘and they could answer, ‘We’ve learnt that…’:

  • Chemistry: If you want to determine the concentration of an unknown solution, then you can perform a titration using a solution of known concentration

  • Biology: If you want to make a case for the significance of a local grassland ecosystem, then you can use methods like quadrat sampling

  • Mathematics: If you have a right-angled triangle and the lengths of two of the sides, then you can use Pythagoras’ Theorem to calculate the length of the remaining side

  • Art: If you want to create the illusion of depth in a two-dimensional artwork, then you can use linear perspective techniques like a vanishing point

During the lesson planning process, it's beneficial for teachers to consider the if-then statements they want students to build into long-term memory.

By taking the time to explicitly map these out, we can more consciously work to achieving that core role of the teacher: To help novices acquire the knowledge structures of experts.

This content was taken from a recent presentation that I gave as part of Lyn Stone’s Science of Learning, Reading, and Writing Masterclass, in partnership with Daisy Christodoulou and Peps Mccrea 😄 

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Just over a month away till the Perth, Melbourne, and Sydney Steplab Intensives with Josh Goodrich, Harry Fletcher-Wood, and Sam Sims!

Don't forget your opportunity to win a free ticket by referring 3 friends to EdThreads via the link below. The winner will be drawn tomorrow night and the odds are still looking good for anyone in the draw!

Other Threads to pull on

My thread to pull on this week is Chat GPT. I’ve been using it so much. It’s just amazing. Here are three things I’ve used it for just this week:

  • To come up with a memorable acronym to help students to remember an important process

  • To proof-read my writing

  • To come up with sentence starters for academic discussion in class

It’s great for generative work. If you’re not onto it already, I really encourage you to give it a go!

Quote of the Week:

‘all buildings are predictions, and all predictions are wrong, so design to make them easy to change.’

Derek Sivers summarising the key idea of Steward Brand’s book, How Buildings Learn