Adriaan de Groot was a 20th-century psychologist who studied the cognitive processes of world-class chess players. His research found that when these individuals look at chessboards, they recognize familiar game configurations and foresee the subsequent moves and countermoves that might be made. Playing chess then becomes a matter of simply selecting the best option.
NBA player LeBron James has a similar ability to recall games he played in years ago with exacting detail. His eidetic memory allows him to anticipate the flow of the action because he “knows” where everyone will be positioned on the floor. He also remembers the moves opposing players made every time they played previously. Combine this with his prodigious knowledge of basketball history and you’ll understand why he is considered one of the foremost experts in the game.
A person doesn’t have to be a LeBron or a Garry Kasparov to be an expert, though. The word “expert” is equally applicable to a physician who can correctly diagnose a condition based on symptoms or lab results, or an emergency responder who can rapidly assess a crisis situation and know where to direct resources. These individuals draw on knowledge cultivated from years of education, experience, and practice. You probably know many experts, and you might very well be one yourself.
Novice learners in a discipline need foundational knowledge on which they can build their understanding, but experts have been there and done that. That makes a difference in the type of learning they seek. A comment that’s often seen on conference evaluations is that a particular session was “too basic; should be more advanced.” However, when you ask people to describe what a “more advanced” session might contain, many find it difficult to articulate what they’re seeking.
When someone has truly mastered their discipline, they want to interact with others who have similar expertise and face similar challenges. For example, CEOs like to talk to other CEOs because they understand each other’s situation, even though they might work in different fields. It’s probably the same in your world. If you’ve been in the business for a long time, you like having the opportunity to exchange ideas with others who have experience comparable to yours.
This is why learning experiences for seasoned professionals should provide opportunities to interact with one another. A presenter may know a great deal about the subject at hand, but he or she may not be the only person in the room with in-depth knowledge on the topic. Instead of having a “sage on the stage,” advanced sessions often have a “guide on the side” creating an environment where the audience can learn from and share with one another. It turns a room full of passive listeners into active participants engaged in their learning.
The next time you’re planning an education session for a room full of experienced pros, think about how to make them part of the discussion. Chances are you’ll end up with a richer learning experience for everyone, and one that they’ll remember.