Surpassing Ourselves

Surpassing Ourselves

Authors: Carl Bereiter and Marlene Scardamalia



Why do some novices become ‘…experts in their line of work…’ when others go on to ‘…swell the ranks of incompetent out mediocre functionaries’? (page ix).  What factors ‘…foster continuing growth in competence’? (page ix), and how could this be achieved quickly? (page 18). What is expertise? These are the questions the authors of this book set out to answer.

The authors approached the rather vague topic of expertise with quite clear definitions of the concepts involved. Distinguishing between expertise and specialisation (page 4), the authors define expertise as ‘…the effortfully acquired abilities… that carry us beyond what nature has specifically prepared us to do…’ (page 3). They see expertise as a process, ‘…something people do rather than as something they have‘ (page xii).

The book describes the defining characteristics of experts, and at the core is the way experts learn. They discuss the development and nurturing of expertise through the interesting concept of progressive problem-solving (page 159). Unlike non-experts who approach problems with task-accomplishment goals, the authors say experts see problems as opportunities to build on their knowledge (pages 160-161). Experts achieve this by ‘…working at the edge of their competence…’, handling the complex problems that improve their skills (page xi). The authors explore this knowledge building schema for learning which ‘…lends itself to provisional interpretations, to keeping questions open, and to actively pursuing fuller understanding’ (page 171).

Throughout the book, the authors compare the reasoning patterns and problem solving strategies of experts and novices (pages 32-33). For instance, the authors refer to expert learning methods such as cognitive chunking of meaningful patterns (page 27-29), a system which enables experts ‘… to see the world differently, to parse it automatically into elements that they know how to deal with’ (page 37).


Expert keyboard button. GotCredit on Flikr.
Expert keyboard button. GotCredit on Flikr.

The authors explored several concepts related to expertise such as creativity (page 121). They say creative experts have the ‘knowledge of promisingness‘ (page 125), and they are ‘…people who take greater risks than other experts-and succeed’ (page 141). The book covered other subjects such as the domains where expertise flourishes (page 120), and the hazards of expertise (page 109).

The book makes reference to several experts in the field of expertise. These include Dreyfus and Dreyfus who described the five stages of progress towards expertise (page 17), and Michael Polanyi and his concept of the hidden knowledge of experts (page 46). They acknowledged Howard Margolis with reference to pattern recognition as a form of thinking (page 126), and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on the motivations for expertise (pages 101-109).

The book made several key recommendations on fostering expertise. They critiqued the standard school learning methods which hinder expert learning (page 186), and they propose a nine point ‘new model of learning‘ which is a mine of wisdom (page 210-211). They advocate the nurturing of an expert society in which ‘…expertise flourishes and is naturally used for the common good’. They describe this as a society in which ‘constraints serve to create opportunities rather than to diminish them‘ (page 223). They itemised the five key characteristics of an expert society, and this is essential reading.



This book is the quintessence of extensive academic experience which the book presented in an easily understandable format. The authors, key researchers in the field of expertise, discussed the broad subject exhaustively and meticulously. Their writing in some places appeared argumentative and defensive; whilst this may appeal to the academic reader aware of the subtleties of the field, it risked turning off the lay reader. This minor criticism however does not diminish the important contribution the book makes to the understanding of expertise.


Expertise is at the core of medical training and practice. This book is therefore relevant to all doctors who strive for proficiency in their fields, but are uncertain how best to achieve this. The topic is important to healthcare and doctors, and the book has covered it extensively. I recommend it highly.


  • Publisher, place, date: Open Court, Chicago, 1993
  • Number of chapters: 8
  • Number of pages: 279
  • ISBN: 978-0-8126-9205-1
  • Price: £47
  • Star rating: 4

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