essential epistemological exercise, a task that explored the limits of historical knowledge. They knew that no single document or picture could tell the story of history; hence, they thought very hard about their choices. In contrast, the students generally just looked at the pictures and made a selection without regard or qualification. For students, the process was similar to finding the correct answer on a multiple choice test.

In sum, although the students scored very well on facts about history, they were largely unacquainted with modes of inquiry with real historical thinking. They had no systematic way of making sense of contradictory claims. Thrust into a set of historical documents that demanded that they sort out competing claims and formulate a reasoned interpretation, the students, on the whole, were stymied. They lacked the experts’ deep understanding of how to formulate reasoned interpretations of sets of historical documents. Experts in other social sciences also organize their problem solving around big ideas (see, e.g., Voss et al., 1984).

The fact that experts’ knowledge is organized around important ideas or concepts suggests that curricula should also be organized in ways that lead to conceptual understanding. Many approaches to curriculum design make it difficult for students to organize knowledge meaningfully. Often there is only superficial coverage of facts before moving on to the next topic; there is little time to develop important, organizing ideas. History texts sometimes emphasize facts without providing support for understanding (e.g., Beck et al., 1989, 1991). Many ways of teaching science also overemphasize facts (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1989; National Research Council, 1996).

The Third International Mathematics and Science Survey (TIMSS) (Schmidt et al., 1997) criticized curricula that were “a mile wide and an inch deep” and argued that this is much more of a problem in America than in most other countries. Research on expertise suggests that a superficial coverage of many topics in the domain may be a poor way to help students develop the competencies that will prepare them for future learning and work. The idea of helping students organize their knowledge also suggests that novices might benefit from models of how experts approach problem solving— especially if they then receive coaching in using similar strategies (e.g., Brown et al., 1989; we discuss this more fully in Chapters 3 and 7).


Experts have a vast repertoire of knowledge that is relevant to their domain or discipline, but only a subset of that knowledge is relevant to any particular problem. Experts do not have to search through everything they know in order to find what is relevant; such an approach would overwhelm

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