APR Update: Is Expertise Dead?

Deborah B. Gentry, Ed.D., CFLE, NCFR Academic Program Liaison
/ CFLE Network, Spring 2018

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Perhaps this scenario is one you might envision happening in your classroom during a lecture-discussion on the importance of family members regularly eating meals together, particularly at dinnertime. As you mention research-based correlates, such as enhanced positive communication; increased academic achievement; as well as reduced substance abuse, eating disorders, obesity, depression, and behavioral problems among the children in the family, various students interject the following comments:

  • “When I was growing up, it was rare that my family members were all able to eat dinner meals together, and none of us kids have any substance abuse problems. We’ve turned out okay.”
  • “During high school, what with lots of school activities, it just wasn’t feasible for both my parents, my sister, and I to eat dinner together at night. Neither my sister nor I had weight problems, and we pretty consistently had As and Bs on our grade cards.”
  • “My mother, who was a single parent, was a stickler for my brother and I eating supper with her most nights. Yet my brother has struggled with depression for years and, in fact, attempted suicide last year.”
  • “As a working parent and part-time graduate student taking evening classes, I know that my kids’ dinnertime with the sitter is chaotic. But I keep decent food on hand for the sitter to fix. The craziness during mealtime doesn’t seem to be hurting my kids. They are always talking. No problem with communicating, that’s for sure. In fact, their teachers say they wish my kiddos didn’t talk so much in class.”

These students, based on a small “sample size” of three to six, perceive that their nonexpert observations are equal to, if not more reliable, than the research findings the family life specialist before them has reported. According to Tom Nichols (2017), author of a recent book titled The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters, such intellectual egalitarianism has perhaps always been present but is certainly more noticeable in recent times. Nichols suggests that several factors have contributed to current resistance to intellectual authority, among them the easy access to Internet search engines and a consumer satisfaction model of higher education. The result is a major distrust of expertise among the public, accompanied by an unfounded belief among nonexperts that their opinion on most any subject is as sound as that of any other person, including a respected expert on the topic.

Metacognition is a concept Nichols addresses in his book. He posits that many intellectual egalitarians are not fully aware nor appreciative of the extent to which they are ill informed about a topic or issue. Further, even if they did sense just how much they don’t know, they have little, if any, readiness to ask the right questions to enhance their knowledge and insight. What, then, can family science educators do to intervene in this teaching–learning problem?

One way to intervene is to design a learning environment that prompts students to develop and refine their critical thinking abilities. In my role as Academic Program Liaison, I read a lot of course syllabi. Two sections of a syllabus that I pay particular attention to are (a) listed objectives and/or learning outcomes and (b) explanations of learning activities and assignments, both ungraded and graded. I assess the degree to which both sections are connected. The learning activities and assignments should complement the objectives and/or outcomes. I am impressed when course objectives/outcomes call for students to be able to use higher level thinking skills such as these:

Analyzing: Learners break learned information into its parts to best understand that information. They are expected to distinguish, question, appraise, experiment, inspect, examine, probe, separate, inquire, arrange, investigate, research, calculate, criticize, compare, contrast, survey, detect, group, order, sequence, test, debate, analyze, diagram, relate, dissect, categorize, and/or discriminate.

Evaluating: Learners make decisions based on in-depth reflection, criticism, and assessment. They are expected to judge, rate, validate, predict, assess, score, revise, infer, determine, prioritize, tell why, compare, evaluate, defend, select, measure, choose, conclude, deduce, debate, justify, recommend, discriminate, appraise, value, probe, argue, decide, criticize, rank, and/or reject.

Creating: Learners create new ideas and information using what has been previously learned. They are expected to compose, assemble, organize, invent, compile, forecast, devise, propose, construct, plan, prepare, develop, originate, imagine, generate, formulate, improve, act, predict, produce, blend, set up, devise, concoct, and/or compile.


Although assigning students to undertake and produce a research paper on a given topic or one of their choosing can be a suitable way to further their critical thinking skills, I am also impressed when instructors innovatively engage students in case-study analysis, debates, panel discussions, and deliberative forums or family impact seminars and allow their students to practice formulating appropriate questions to pose to interviewees or survey respondents. Such teaching–learning strategies need not be relegated to family policy courses. They can be incorporated into most any course aimed at fulfilling the expectations of the other nine FLE Content Areas, including Content Area 2: Internal Dynamics of Families and Content Area 7: Parent Education and Guidance, in which a course addressing family mealtime rituals might reside.

Of course, when reviewing syllabi, I also check out the reading materials students will be exposed to and assess the “fit” these readings have with objectives and/or outcomes as well as learning activities and assignments. Many instructors choose a primary textbook, then supplement with relevant ancillary readings and resources. In the past, when teaching a college-level course, I have selected Asking the Right Questions: A Guide to Critical Thinking (Browne, Keeley, & Vasudeva, 2018) as an ancillary reading to accompany a primary textbook choice. In its 12th edition, this 192-page paperback is said (in its Amazon.com description) to teach “students to think critically by exploring the components of arguments—issues, conclusions, reasons, evidence, assumptions, language—and on how to spot fallacies and manipulations and obstacles to critical thinking in both written and visual communication. It teaches them to respond to alternative points of view and develop a solid foundation for making personal choices about what to accept and what to reject.” I have found it useful in reducing my students’ tendencies toward intellectual egalitarianism. And, from time to time, I have also turned to it to refresh my own critical thinking skills, especially in this age of supposed “fake news.”

To readers of this column, what strategies have you successfully used when trying to reduce students’ intellectual egalitarianism? I invite you to post them on one of the NCFR discussion groups, particularly the CFLE discussion group. We can all benefit by learning from each other. Visit this webpage to begin posting and reading others’ posts: https://www.ncfr.org/ncfr-discussion-groups.


Browne, M. N., Keeley, S. M., & Vasudeva, M. (2018). Asking the right questions: A guide to critical thinking (12th ed.). New York, NY: Pearson.

Nichols, J. (2017). The death of expertise: The campaign against established knowledge and why it matters. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.