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Developing expertise: The intersection of art, science, and practice

The first of its kind, IDST 125, a class on the art and science of expertise, hopes to help Carolina students fulfill their dreams and maximize their potential. 
UNC School of Education professor Jeff Greene, Ph.D., sports administration professor Erianne Weight, Ph.D., and UNC Women’s Soccer coach Anson Dorrance.

Expertise is an emerging discipline which studies how individuals realize their full potential. Gaining that expertise, though, is more complicated than simply spending a significant amount of time doing or learning something. There are actual mechanisms — an art and science — that go into the development of that expertise in any field.     

Co-taught by UNC School of Education professor Jeff Greene, Ph.D., sports administration professor Erianne Weight, Ph.D., and UNC Women’s Soccer coach Anson Dorrance, IDST 125: “The Art and Science of Expertise” is providing Carolina first-year students with theory and practice, art and science to help them achieve their goals of and through expertise.    

“Teaching students about deliberate practice, teaching them about growth mindset, teaching them about self-regulation, gives them the knowledge and tools they need to figure out how to pursue expertise in something in a really specific and targeted way” said Greene, who is a leading researcher in educational psychology and learning science.   

“What we are teaching, helps students pursue whatever it is that they’re passionate about. I think that’s important. It gives students autonomy and agency.”  

The knowledge and tools students take away from IDST 125 help to realize the goals of UNC-Chapel Hill’s IDEAS in Action curriculum, which aims to help students strengthen their ability to think critically, work collaboratively, and communicate persuasively.   

As part of that curriculum, IDST is a Triple-I course – the three I’s being ideas, information, and inquiry – which are larger classes co-taught by an interdisciplinary team of three professors that are organized around a broad theme, in this case expertise, and these courses highlight different approaches to that theme. Triple-I courses are reserved for first-year students.  

“This idea that students would benefit from understanding how multiple disciplines view the same phenomenon and how they inquired about it, I thought that was cool,” said Greene. “It’s amazing, and humbling, to hear from students about how this course helped them improve their performance on the athletic field, in the classroom, in entrepreneurial ventures, and even in competitive dance!”   

Busting the 10,000-hour myth  

According to Weight, a faculty member in the Department of Exercise and Sport Science who studies the science of high performance, our knowledge about neuroplasticity is relatively new and ever-expanding.    

“This emerging science is one of the most important things we can understand,” Weight said. “We now know that our brain is remarkably malleable. We didn’t know that 50 years ago.”   

“We can change, grow, and enhance [our brain] just like a muscle. We can learn how to change our mindsets and understand how we can learn, understand what it takes to become experts.”   

One thing we know about expertise, according to all three of IDST 125’s instructors, is that the 10,000-hour rule popularized by Marcum Gladwell based on the foundational work of Anders Ericsson is widely misunderstood. Expertise is more complicated than simply spending 10,000 hours on a task or within a discipline to become an expert. A good deal of time does go into becoming expert, but that time must be filled with deliberate practice – planning, performance, monitoring, and feedback with concerted effort right at the edge of our comfort zones. 

In class, Weight, Dorrance, and Greene act as instructors, providing theory and real-world examples of achieving expertise or growth within a discipline, but they also act as coaches, guiding students along a process or processes of development.   

“Many students want to understand how they can develop in, perhaps, something academic, but also maybe something athletic or something like a hobby or something outside of school that they really love, but they don’t know the mechanisms to do that,” Greene said.   

That’s where deliberate practice, growth mindset, self-regulation, understandings about how to perform at the highest levels, and lessons from a career of enabling the success of world-class athletes converge.  

You need coaches or loving critics or people that you respect to help accelerate the process so you can get there as fast as possible,” said Dorrance, who has led Carolina’s women’s soccer team to 22 national championships. “Throughout the course of the semester, what these students are learning is how to get to work instead of giving up on a dream.   

That coaching mentality naturally arose when Weight was conceptualizing the course. Her research, which has focused on athletics, found that the participation experiences of athletes often result in outcomes that include greater satisfaction with life, greater job opportunities, job satisfaction, higher salaries, and greater social support compared to non-athletes.   

Many, if not all, of the concepts talked about in the class are already incorporated in some way in athletic programs, including ones at Carolina.    

“I hope we can bring a lot of these things that athletics has done inherently toward holistic development to other populations,” Weight said. “We want individuals who are going into pre-med, for example, to be able to learn the same performance lessons that athletes do, learn how to fail fast and get back up, learn how to continually gather data and feedback on your performance, and incorporate it into your daily life of never-ending ascension.”   

Growing expertise in expertise  

While expertise is not something Greene’s research focuses on explicitly, he said that it connects well with his current research, which focuses self-regulation and epistemic cognition.

Self-regulation is how people actively and thoughtfully pursue goals by understanding their thinking, their understanding, their emotions, and their behaviors. Epistemic cognition is about understanding what matters in a discipline and how disciplines create knowledge.   

“I was excited to expand what I do into a next logical area, which is expertise development,” Greene said.   

When it comes to the class, Greene brings insightful information relating to aspects of expertise development and deliberate practice that are grounded in psychology and educational psychology, including topics like self-regulation, motivation, and growth mindset which is the belief that one’s abilities can be developed or improved through dedicated practice.   

Greene was brought on as a co-instructor for the class after Anson Dorrance heard one of Greene’s lectures about the science behind learning and recommended him to Weight.   

“I’m sitting there listening to this guy, I’m thinking, ‘Oh my gosh. I can’t wait to talk to this guy after his lecture and tell Erianne about him because I want Erianne to recruit this guy into our class,’” said Dorrance. “Holy cow was he extraordinary.”   

“I can’t tell you how rewarding it is to co-teach this course with Erianne and Anson. We’re all learning from each other, the students are learning from us, and we are learning from the students. It’s a joy,” Greene said.  

Looking to the future, the trio of instructors for “The Art and Science of Expertise” are writing an invited article for the Cambridge Handbook on Expertise, surveying all the expertise experts out there and asking them how they think a class like IDST 125 could become a curriculum.   

“A course like this is an important overview of the field. We’d love to be able to scaffold a full curriculum with more specific in-depth courses in performance psychology, data analytics, group dynamics, performance physiology, communication, and innovation where students can merge their passion with science,” Weight said.    

Even though this is only their second year teaching the course, Weight, Dorrance, and Greene hope the class can create new opportunities for students at Carolina and beyond. Despite currently being the only course of its kind, there is hope that similar courses will begin to help more people learn how to become the best version of themselves.   

“It’s a really rewarding class to teach. Whether one of our students is an athlete, entrepreneur, musician, or scientist, it’s really fun to watch them learn how to accelerate their development and apply it to their lives,” said Greene.