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Starting at the beginning: What is Adaptive Expertise?

November 14, 2011

Understanding Adaptive Expertise

On campus tours and in conversations with prospective parents, we are often called on to explain the meaning of adaptive expertise. AE, as we call it behind the scenes, has become the guiding philosophy of our lives as members of the Cannon School community.

So, as we kickoff our new Admission Office Blog, I think it makes sense to start at the beginning: What exactly IS Adaptive Expertise?

Our Head of School, Matt Gossage, shares his explanation below (from an excerpt of a letter to Cannon School parents):

When I recently Googled “adaptive expertise,” I found that Wikipedia’s explanation of the construct has claimed the top spot in the list of references and links to the cornerstone of our educational philosophy. (You may want to take a moment and click on the link. The explanation is actually helpful.)

Just a few years ago the top online link for adaptive expertise would have been an article or lecture presented by an expert in the field of education such as John Bransford. The shift from Bransford to Wikipedia captures the move the concept has made from the realm of educational research to the marketplace of culturally current. More and more people believe we need to look at the challenges confronting us with a different mindset.

One of my goals for the year is to be an agent in deepening our collective understanding of adaptive expertise. I want to assist in moving our sense of this concept into the things we consider daily in our respective roles. Similar to the process within Wikipedia, we need to bat the construct around in normal life, create more opportunities to talk about it, and contribute to our growing awareness and understanding of it.

Adaptive Expertise: A Primer

An “adaptive expert” is an expert. At Cannon, we challenge and support children to strive for a level of proficiency as thinkers, readers, writers, and problem solvers that encourages them not to settle for the mediocrity that too often today seems to be the norm. The type of expertise we advocate at Cannon is built upon effort and a daily commitment to hard work. This type of expertise includes a set of skills that acknowledges there is more to learn.

The adaptive expert brings a novice’s attitude to every class, topic, and experience. There is an eagerness in the adaptive expert that welcomes new challenges, and there is a flexibility in the adaptive expert that is the result of the realization that each challenge warrants a fresh look and perhaps a new approach.

I am convinced that Cannon School has a responsibility to prepare our students for an unpredictable world. My generation has avoided issues and problems that will intersect and compound their impact during the time when our children will be the leaders, decision-makers, and problem solvers. And because the world has become so connected, our children, in the roles of leaders and decision-makers, will not be able to concern themselves with just the full plate of these fifty states. Their work site will be the world, and technology will accelerate the rate at which problems and challenges on the other side of the world occupy them.

Even though I have dedicated my professional life to the calling of education, I have never maintained that education, in and of itself, has the power to save the world or an individual. The institution of the family and an individual’s coming to grips with the spiritual and the eternal possess, in my mind, a greater potential to deliver this world and its people. But education is a complement and companion to faith and family. And adaptive expertise, as a cornerstone to an educational philosophy, confronts life’s challenges both seen and unforeseen and offers our children the opportunity to meet them head on with resolve and a true sense of hope.

Matthew E. Gossage
Head of School

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