The concept of adaptive expertise has also been explored in a study of history experts (Wineburg, 1998). Two history experts and a group of future teachers were asked to read and interpret a set of documents about Abraham Lincoln and his view of slavery. This is a complex issue that, for Lincoln, involved conflicts between enacted law (the Constitution), natural law (as encoded in the Declaration of Independence), and divine law (assumptions about basic rights). One of the historians was an expert on Lincoln; the second historian’s expertise lay elsewhere. The Lincoln expert brought detailed content knowledge to the documents and easily interpreted them; the other historian was familiar with some of the broad themes in the documents but quickly became confused in the details. In fact, at the beginning of the task, the second historian reacted no differently than a group of future high school teachers who were faced with the same task (Wineburg and Fournier, 1994): attempting to harmonize discrepant information about Lincoln’s position, they both appealed to an array of present social forms and institutions—such as speech writers, press conferences, and “spin doctors” —to explain why things seemed discrepant. Unlike the future teachers, however, the second historian did not stop with his initial analysis. He instead adopted a working hypothesis that assumed that the apparent contradictions might be rooted less in Lincoln’s duplicity than in his own ignorance of the nineteenth century. The expert stepped back from his own initial interpretation and searched for a deeper understanding of the issues. As he read texts from this perspective, his understanding deepened, and he learned from the experience. After considerable work, the second historian was able to piece together an interpretive structure that brought him by the task’s end to where his more knowledgeable colleague had begun. The future history teachers, in contrast, never moved beyond their initial interpretations of events.
An important characteristic exhibited by the history expert involves what is known as “metacognition” —the ability to monitor one’s current level of understanding and decide when it is not adequate. The concept of metacognition was originally introduced in the context of studying young children (e.g., Brown, 1980; Flavell, 1985, 1991). For example, young children often erroneously believe that they can remember information and hence fail to use effective strategies, such as rehearsal. The ability to recognize the limits of one’s current knowledge, then take steps to remedy the situation, is extremely important for learners at all ages. The history expert who was not a specialist in Lincoln was metacognitive in the sense that he successfully recognized the insufficiency of his initial attempts to explain Lincoln’s position. As a consequence, he adopted the working hypothesis that he needed to learn more about the context of Lincoln’s times before coming to a reasoned conclusion.