Drawing on a Sculpted Space of Actions: Educating for Expertise while Avoiding a Cognitive Monster

Journal of Philosophy of Education 51 (3):620-639 (2017)
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Philosophers and scientists have across the ages been amazed about the fact that development and learning often lead to not just a merely incremental and gradual change in the learner but sometimes to a result that is strikingly different from the learner’s original situation: amazed, but at times also worried. Both philosophical and cognitive neuroscientific insights suggest that experts appear to perform ‘different’ tasks compared to beginners who behave in a similar way. These philosophical and empirical perspectives give some insight into what happens when a novice is transitioning to a stage of expertise. Generally, this implies that increased skill and expertise support better results and a more flexible performance, in part because these allow an agent to withdraw part of her attention and other cognitive resources from the tasks involved, enabling her to devote those resources to supporting, or completely different, tasks. As positive as these developments appear, these changes have also raised concerns. The main concern is whether gaining expertise is like raising a ‘cognitive monster’ which escapes the individual’s conscious control and influences her actions with undesirable automatisms. If so, we should ask ourselves whether experts are capable of taming this monster. The answer appears initially not to be positive. Indeed, it has been noted that since it is difficult for experts to withhold automatic responses this can lead to inflexibility or performance that is only optimal under certain conditions, because it is limited to a specific domain, often context-dependent, biased and inflexible. In what follows, I will consider this challenge of protecting expertise and harnessing this brittleness from philosophical and cognitive neuroscientific perspectives. Taking into account that action is in general determined by a multitude of factors, with learning and development affecting how these factors exert their influence, a philosophical question is how this complex and dynamic process can be explained and subsequently, how controlling it might be understood. First, though, I will present the issue at hand more closely: should we appreciate expertise if it is similar to growing a ‘cognitive monster’? Second, I will introduce the framework of a “Sculpted Space of Actions” (Keestra, 2014), which I developed in order to explain how the challenge of selecting an adequate option for action is facilitated by expertise as it helps to constrain the space of potential action options. Subsequently, the question is raised of how such a Sculpted Space of Actions influences an expert’s engagement with specific situations, like teaching students in a classroom setting. It will be argued that a well prepared expert—teacher or otherwise— is not only able to rely upon her routines but will at the same time be more perceptive and attentive to unforeseen events and actions, according to the recent cognitive neuroscientific theory of Predictive Processing. Integrating the theory of Predictive Processing with the Sculpted Space of Actions framework, I conclude that expertise contributes to adaptive and flexible responses to specific contexts, yet only if it is associated with explicit planning and articulation of situation specific intentions—the latter effectively putting the cognitive monster at rest for a while.

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Machiel Keestra
University of Amsterdam


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