Professional expertise, integrative thinking, wisdom, and phronēsis


In his novel Atonement, Ian McEwan (2001, pp. 276-277) depicts a scene from World War II: a young nurse is facing the problem of a large number of wounded soldiers arriving at the ward. According to normal procedures, arriving patients should be given a bath, changed into hospital pyjamas and be guided to their bed, but these soldiers chose their bed themselves without washing and changing. In this situation, the novice nurse demanded that the soldiers follow the rules, telling them they must get up, as there is a procedure. An expert nurse intervened and solved the situation by being flexible, stating that the men needed to sleep, and the procedures were for later.

The fictional scene above illustrates that experts think differently from novices. Research on expertise has identified the following differences between expert performers and beginners (Boshuizen, Bromine, & Gruber, 2004; Ghi, Glaser, & Farr, 1988; Ericsson, Charness, Feltovich, & Hoffman, 2006; Feltovich, Prietula, & Ericsson, 2006; Harteis & Billett, 2013; Tynjala, 2016):

  • • Experts have larger and more integrative knowledge units, and their representations of information are more functional and abstract than those of novices, whose knowledge base is more fragmentary. For example, a beginning piano player reads sheet music note by note, whereas a concert pianist is able to see the whole row or even several rows of music notation at the same time.
  • • When solving problems, experts may spend more time on the initial problem evaluation and planning than novices. This enables them to form a holistic and in-depth understanding of the task and usually to reach a solution more swiftly than beginners.
  • • Basic functions related to tasks or the job are automated in experts, whereas beginners need to pay attention to these functions. For instance, in a driving school, a young driver focuses his or her attention on controlling devices and pedals, while an experienced driver performs basic strokes automatically. For this reason, an expert driver can observe and anticipate traffic situations better than a beginning driver.
  • • Experts outperform novices in their metacognitive and reflective thinking. In other words, they make sharp observations of their own ways of thinking, acting, and working, especially in non-routine situations when automated activities are challenged.
  • • Beginners’ knowledge is mainly explicit and they are dependent on learned rules. In addition to explicit knowledge, experts have tacit or implicit knowledge that accumulates with experience. This kind of knowledge makes it possible to make fast decisions on the basis of what is often called intuition. To attain the best possible solution to a problem in situations where circumstances radically deviate from the norm, experts may decide to break learned rules, as was the case in the hospital example above.

In situations where something has gone wrong or when experts face totally new problems but are not required to make fast decisions, they critically reflect on their actions. Unlike beginners, experienced professionals focus their thinking not only on details but rather on the totality consisting of the details. Thus, experts’ thinking is more holistic than the thinking of novices. It seems that the quality of thinking is associated with the quality and amount of knowledge. With a fragmentary knowledge base, a novice in any field may remain on lower levels of thinking: things are seen as black and white, without any nuances. In contrast, more experienced colleagues with a more organised and holistic knowledge base can access more material for their thinking, and, thus, may begin to explore different perspectives on matters and develop more relativistic views concerning certain problems. At the highest levels of thinking, an individual is able to reconcile different perspectives, either by forming a synthesis or by integrating different approaches or views (e.g., Borawski, 2017; Paletz, Bogue, Miron-Spektor, & Spencer-Rodgers, 2018; Kallio, 2001, 2011, see articles in Part I of this book).

In this chapter, we examine adult thinking from the perspective of professional expertise. Typical of expert work in any domain is solving ill-defined or complex problems, which requires higher-order thinking. In the following sections, we first present three conceptualisations of expertise development that lead us to the notion of the role of multiple perspectives and solving complex problems for the development of higher-order thinking. Furthermore, this examination leads us to the concept of integrative thinking, that is, a form of thinking where an individual integrates ideas and even opposing perspectives, able to form a synthesis based on these different perspectives. Then, we expand the discussion of expertise from traditional cognitive approaches toward more holistic views. In a fast changing world with increasingly complicated problems that are morally and ethically loaded, there is a need to examine professional expertise from more and wider perspectives than before. We suggest that the concept of practical wisdom provides such a broader viewpoint. Integrative thinking has been proven to be an important element of wisdom (Labouvie-Vief, 1990; Kallio, 2015, Chapter 2). In our discussion on wisdom, we rely both on current research on wisdom and, in particular, the Aristotelian notion of phronesis, that is, practical wisdom. Finally, we present a conceptualisation of wisdom in professional expertise needed in the present-day world’s problems of unprecedented complexity. At the core of this model are integrative thinking and problem solving, involving ethical judgement and social responsibility.

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