Ideas for Developing Expert Practitioners of Evidence-based Management

I’ve previously discussed ways to implement Evidence-based Management here.  Today I ask a related question; how do we prepare practitioners to become experts at using evidence.  The work of Carl Wieman points us in a relevant direction that suggests that knowledge of evidence is not sufficient to make us expert users of evidence.

Wieman begins with evidence that scientific coursework was not preparing students to be experts in scientific problem solving, that is, not until they were able to gain experience as assistances in his physic lab.   Introductory physics courses did not seem to be working as expected.

On average, students have more novice like beliefs after they have completed an introductory physics course than they had when they started; this was found for nearly every introductory course measured. More recently, my group started looking at beliefs about chemistry. If anything, the effect of taking an introductory college chemistry course is even worse than for taking physics.

Wieman describes novices as people who can only see isolated pieces of information, pieces of information that are learned by memorization and are understood as disconnected from the world.

To the novice, scientific problem-solving is just matching the pattern of the problem to certain memorized recipes.

On the other hand, experts see coherent structures or frameworks of evidence-based concepts   The way experts solve problems involves strategies that are systematic, concept-based, and applicable to new and different contexts.  Wieman points out that experts have substantial knowledge, but it only becomes important when it is used within expert conceptual structures.  From a teaching and assessment point of view, assessing only what experts know will leave you ignorant in the ways that experts use knowledge.  You must understand the frameworks within which knowledge is used.

Everything that constitutes “understanding” science and “thinking scientifically” resides in the long-term memory, which is developed via the construction and assembly of component proteins. So a person who does not go through this extended mental construction process simply cannot achieve mastery of a subject.

Now I generally follow constructivist ideas, but I don’t believe that we should focus on a naive constructivist pedagogy.  The issue is not knowing, even if you find a way to construct your knowledge.  It is all about doing and the way that knowledge enables you to do things.  I believe Wieman is advocating for teaching methods that promote this type of knowledge use.  If you use constructivist pedagogy, but remain focused on only a body of knowledge, your results will not substantially improve.  What Wieman points out about learning reinforces the notion that our brains are wired for action, in ways that link learning and motor control.  We are not made to know only, but to know in the process of doing.

A second point, this also illustrates another case that was demonstrated by Engel (2010) and is relevant here.  Engel noted that “developmental precursors don’t always resemble the skill to which they are leading”.  (I’ve discussed this here.) Students who are learning in Wieman’s physics lab are:

focused intently on solving real physics problems, and I (Wieman) regularly probe how they’re thinking and give them guidance to make it more expert-like.  After a few years in that environment they turn into experts, not because there is something magic in the air in the research lab but because they are engaged in exactly the cognitive processes that are required for developing expert competence.

A diverse body of knowledge is a necessary but insufficient condition.  Even though knowledge is necessary, accumulating a body of knowledge is not a developmental precursor of expert performance.

That leaves the question, what does expert practice look like in management; what do successful managers do, how do we get students to think deeply about what to do with management problems, in what cognitive process should they be involved?  Overall, I am still an advocate for bridging the academic and the world of practice for students through some type of supervised practicum.

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