Expert memories

We move through the world in a narrow groove, preoccupied with the petty things we see and hear…

Steve Hagen, Buddhism Plain and Simple

If there is a difference between the expert and he who is merely experienced, that difference is what is remembered as each passes through the world.

Those destined to be an eternal novice encounter the world such that the imprint left behind means they are no more prepared for the future than they were before. Those on the way to expertise take something from each encounter which has value to their future self.

If we are to keep getting better at doing difficult things then understanding how expert memories are formed is important. We cannot afford to waste experience.

The expert mind

My contention in this post is that the memories of experts are different to those of the merely experienced. This is a difference in quality, not quantity. It is not that some people remember less than others having had the same experience but that the memories are different in form.

I suggest three possible differences, namely a difference in:

  1. What is remembered
  2. How secure these memories are
  3. What these memories enable the individual to notice, understand and do.

What is left behind

Expertise must be rooted in a domain of knowledge or field of practice. You can’t be a general expert (although some people behave like they are). You must be expert at something.

There are different ways of thinking about the ‘something’. It is helpful to think of expertise as the ability to solve certain types of problems. We might have expertise in accountancy, chess, or teaching. This means we are skilled at solving accountancy, chess, or teaching problems, respectively.

As we gain experience in our domain, it is of little use if we only learn how to solve specific problems. We want to get better at playing chess, not at winning that particular game. Expertise must, therefore, involve generalising from the specific. We want to be able to recognise when we find ourselves up against a problem like this one again, and be able to infer some rules of thumb to guide our decision making.

We can think of this process is one of determining the underlying structure of a problem. The underlying structure is what makes problems fundamentally similar to each other, as opposed to the surface features of a problem: those that are immediately obvious and circumstantial. The graphic above illustrates how experts may notice the underlying features of problems and filter out the contextual noise. An expert schema is built, which is the knowledge required to recognise similar problems in the future, and help us know what to do when we do.

In the language of memory, we may distinguish between the episodic memory (remembering what happened) and semantic memory (the meaning derived from the experience).

But it may be that both semantic and episodic memories are useful to experts. The former help the expert recognise similar problems when they are encountered (structurally similar, not superficially similar), whereas the latter help the expert determine the ways in which this manifestation is different to those experienced before (important contextual features). It is not useful to remember only the events which occurred, but neither is it useful to forget the contextual detail.

It seems likely that experts have the ability both to notice how the events currently unfolding are similar to problems they have encountered before, and also how they differ in important ways. This ability derives from sophisticated mental models which link semantic and episodic memory.

Causal and predictive inferences

It is no use simply recognising familiar problems. The expert will need knowledge about the probable causes of problems and be able to anticipate how events may unfold. Causal and predictive knowledge supports experts in developing plausible hypothesis about how best to act upon a problem.

To build reliable causal and predictive aspects into a schema, an individual will need to pay careful attention as they experience problems. They will need to explore how the problem has arisen, test their assumptions about its causes, and observe carefully what happens next. They must get to know the problem and how it manifests. Memories built on false assumptions will not serve us well in the future.

Paying attention is an important aspect of becoming expert. We only remember what we pay attention to. However, paying attention isn’t enough. To guide our expertise building, we must understand how memories are formed, strengthened and developed over time.

Making memories

We do not just want to create memories, but to create valuable memories. We often think of good memories as being vivid and detailed recall of events that happened. This is important for autobiographical memory, not necessarily for building expertise. A valuable expert memory allows you to make more valid inferences, which requires both generalised knowledge and the detail of where that knowledge applies. Weinstein et al (2018) state that ‘a perfect memory benefits from belonging to an overarching schema, but should not yet be fully semanticized such that all distinguishing details have disappeared’.

To create valuable memories, three processes are needed: encoding, consolidation, and retrieval.

Encoding is the process of ‘writing’ information to memory. For this to be achieved, new knowledge should be integrated into existing schema. This process can be helped by bringing to mind relevant information. For example, we may ask ourselves ‘where have I experienced something similar to this before, and how does this compare?’ Noticing the similarities and differences to past experiences or problems is beneficial.

Consolidation is the process of adaptation that memories go through whereby they lose episodic detail and semanticize. Memories are consolidated, integrated and semanticized during sleep. If we go to bed with a problem on our mind, we often awake with clarity and insight. Coming back to memories after a period of ‘rest’ helps make strong schemas. It is for this reason that spacing and interleaving help not only strengthen retention, but change the very nature of the memory, making it more valuable to one’s future self.

Retrieval is a more active attempt to reconsolidate memories. It is perhaps a form of consolidation, but a hyper-charged form. Carried out intentionally, it may help secure detailed memories and prevent memory becoming too general and abstract. Retrieval is a good bet for helping secure valuable expert memories.

Practical applications to educational leadership

In many walks of life, not least in complex occupational fields, I suspect most of us would agree that experience is not sufficient: we want expertise. In the context I work in – schools – this holds true.

We can be intentional about building expertise. A basic principle is that we do not want teachers and school leaders to simply encounter problems – to move through the world in a narrow groove, preoccupied with petty things, as the quote at the start of this post suggests – but to draw meaning from experience and act to build valuable memories.

Expert memories are more likely to be formed if we pay attention to the right things (noticing), bring to mind relevant prior knowledge (to support encoding), have repeated encounters with fundamentally similar problems (repetition), and let our mind rest before revisiting these experiences, ideally intentionally (to support consolidation).

In the midst of potential learning episodes, embroiled in the act of problem solving, it is difficult to step back and do the things which will help build expertise. At senior leadership level, I have found that creating good habits around problem exploration prompts behaviours which may help encoding. Simple acts like bringing problems ‘to the table’ at leadership meetings, to expose our assumptions and logic to the critical minds of our colleagues, are helpful (if challenging to the ego). Or deliberately testing our assumptions by talking to others in various roles and inviting disagreement, what Vivienne Robinson terms ‘open to learn’ conversations. Such approaches promote a deep consideration of the problem and bring to mind past events which can be drawn upon to provide insight and help generalise from the specific.

After the event, we should habitually revisit experiences. One approach I have found useful is case reviews whereby a narrative of events is brought to the table for dissection. These work particularly well for safeguarding, critical incidents, personnel issues and post-mortem of organisational errors. Case reviews consolidate learning from experience and inform heuristics to guide future action.

The way we process professional experiences will determine the way we act on problems in the future. Memories are the thread with which we weave the silken mind of expertise.

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