Hatano introduced the concept of adaptive expertise in relation to abacus masters. He
proposed that abacus masters should be termed routine experts because they have developed a very high, but rather narrow, procedural proficiency with a particular set of cultural tools. He contrasted routine experts with adaptive experts, and he and Inagaki asked the educationally relevant question of how “novices become adaptive experts – performing procedural skills efficiently, but also understanding the meaning and nature of their object.” (Hatano & Inagaki, 1986, pp. 262-623).
Hatano and Inagaki (1986) described several qualities of adaptive expertise that distinguish it from routine expertise. These include the ability to verbalize the principles underlying one’s skills, the ability to judge conventional and non-conventional versions of skills as appropriate, and the ability to modify or invent skills according to local constraints. Wineburg (1998) and others (e.g., Bransford & Schwartz, 1999) have added to this list by pointing out that adaptive experts are also more prepared to learn from new situations and avoid the over-application of previously efficient schema (Hatano & Oura, 2003).
Hatano and Inagaki suggested that in stable environments, culture typically provides
sufficient resources for learning and executing routine expertise. People have many pockets of routineexpertisewheretheyarehighlyefficientwithoutadeepunderstandingofwhy. To further develop adaptive expertise, people need to experience a sufficient degree of variability to support the possibility of adaptation. This variation can occur naturally, or people can actively experiment with their environments to produce the necessary variability. Hatano and Inagaki (1986) proposed three factors, highly relevant to education, that influence whether people will engage in active experimentation.
One factor is whether a situation has “built-in” randomness or whether technology (broadly construed) has reduced the variability to the point where there is little possibility for exploration. Instruction often attempts to reduce all ambient variability to help students focus on the procedural skill. This may have the unintended consequence of preventing students from judging variations in that procedure in response to new situations.
The second factor involves the degree to which people can approach a task playfully or whether there are large consequences attached that limit risk taking. When the risk attached to the performance of a procedure is minimal, people are more inclined to experiment. “In contrast, when a procedural skill is performed primarily to obtain rewards, people are reluctant to risk varying the skills, since they believe safety lies in relying on the ‘conventional’ version” (p. 269).
The third factor involves the degree to which the classroom culture emphasizes understanding or prompt performance. Hatano & Inagaki (1986) state, “A culture, where understanding the system is the goal, encourages individuals in it to engage in active experimentation. That is, they are invited to try new versions of the procedural skill, even at the cost of efficiency” (p. 270). They proposed that an understanding-oriented classroom culture naturally fosters explanation and elaboration, compared to a performance-oriented classroom culture where the goal is to just get it done the right way.
In sum, Hatano and colleagues characterized adaptive expertise as procedural
fluency that is complemented by an explicit conceptual understanding that permits adaptation to variability. The acquisition of adaptive expertise is fostered by educational environments that support active exploration through three tiers. The first tier highlights the variability inherent to the task environment. The second tier highlights the variability permitted in the individual’s procedural application. The final tier highlights the variability of explanation permitted by the culture, such that people can share and discuss their different understandings. The implications for the classroom culture are direct, and we consider brief examples from our own work on each of these tiers. We focus on how to help students notice important sources of variability. Life always contains variability, but people can overlook important differences by applying well-worn schemas.