So I was just watching Alison Gopnik’s TED talk, “What do babies think?”, from 406, and I found some of its points to be applicable to generalization/specialization. Namely, she talked about the notion of a babies mind being more like a lantern than a spotlight. I thought this was akin to the idea of “range” versus “specificity”, as talked about in “Second Nature” by Edelman. The basic idea is that there is a tradeoff between range and specificity. This idea is applied to neural pattern recognition and/or attention in that book. It is also probably applicable to babies and adults, in that, in general, babies occupy more of the “range” side of the spectrum and adults occupy more of the “specific” side of the spectrum. Further, Gopnik made the point that we are in this “baby consciousness” when we are in a new situation or place or newly in love and during this state of mind we are far better at learning. I couldn’t help but think of my time traveling Europe this summer and remembering how truly brand-new everything seemed and the leaps and bounds I made in progressing my thoughts; I think I learned a great deal in the short time I was there. I also couldn’t help but think that we, as pre-teachers, are, and will be for our first few years of teaching, metaphorical teacher babies. When it comes to the art and subject of teaching, no matter how expert we are in a subject area, we are still learning about teaching in general. Thinking otherwise, like that learning only about how to teach our specialization is all that matters, limits our range and hinders our learning about teaching. To impose such constraints this early in our teaching life would undoubtedly limit our learning and be a sad thing. –bg.

and here's some links: - Thought the point about generalizing first, then specializing was applicable to us as early-teachers too: as in, we should get good at teaching in general first, then specialize it. The point about specializing in what really matters is a good point too.

Thought the first sentence and a half was good from this wiki page too. Kind of says something about maybe our ability to adapt to various situations (which is something we'll have to do often) and maybe even about our ability to get a job..

Wow! I love what you wrote, bg!

I feel that generalization and specialization can be attributed to our left and right brain division:

McGilchrist, I. (2011). The Divided Brain. RSA Animate. Retrieved from:

This talk I remember bringing up in the first week, but it's about exactly this: The right hemisphere gives you the big picture, while the left allows you to narrow your focus to accomplish specific tasks.

Now no one wants to use only half their brain! How inefficient would that be? There ought to be a balance between zooming in to specificity and zooming out to see complexity. This is especially true in the field of visual art, when an artist works on illustrating, he or she must be able to grasp the larger picture, decide how to compose it on the page or canvas, perhaps do a general sketch, then zoom into work on more and more details. Every once in a while, he or she must zoom back out to check if the details fit right with the whole composition. This back and forth movement is important, just as it is important to wake up and go to sleep. There's a lot that happens in your sleep, when your brain digests the events of the day. Oversleeping, on the other hand, drains you of energy. Not sleeping enough is damaging also. Similarly, specializing is good, but over specializing may cause you to miss some learning outside of your specialization. This is the moral of the tale Swimology.

Too much generalizing isn't good either, especially in trades that require a lot of specialization to do (safely and/or accurately) at all. This was expressed by both phys. ed students and fine arts students. You wouldn't want me teaching music since I haven't looked at a score in thirteen years! Neither would you trust someone with no first aid/sports med. training to teach phys. ed, especially in sports like gymnastics (which is incorporated into cheerleading). The same is true of martial arts, so watching Penn and Teller on martial artswas disheartening also (because I know a teacher from Malaysia who has been training since he was 3, his parents were both martial artists, and part of being a 'kung-fu master' is having traditional medical training in case things go awry). Same with teaching yoga! Trying to teach what you don't really understand can be dangerous! I really feel terrible when I hear of feng shui and other "ethnic/indigenous" practices/religion (such as voodoo) co-opted to become pseudoscience or cute trinkets. People make careers out of teaching/selling what they don't know (but think they do). I don't think it's possible to spend one weekend paying $$$$ on a course and become a certified "spiritual healer." Becoming a healer takes years of practice and observation. It's a trade that used to require apprenticeship. To some extent, I really think apprenticeship would help us become better teachers.

When people learn something 'generally' and teach it, it's not really doing much service. In the same manner that 50% (or 60% or 65%) is a pass in our education system, which I think is BS. So imagine a country where every citizen is only required to know half of what their elders do. Then when they group up, their children are only required to know half of what they know. No wonder the system is broken.

Even if a child isn't a "gifted" learner, if they learn differently, if they learn best in a non-academic setting, I still want them to cover and demonstrate fluency in 100% of the fundamentals, no matter how long it takes, because THAT IS THE FOUNDATION society will rest on for generations to come. I think the reason the system is failing kids is allowing them to go up grades when they have cracks, holes and gaps in their understanding. The higher they go, the more lost they get, until, well, they check out mentally and/or drop out of school thinking it's a complete waste of time. And perhaps many of us feel that some things in this course are a waste of time. I want to get creative. I want to make the best use of my time. There has to be a better way.

Back on topic: I think we have already "specialized" upon coming to this program with a degree. This is our chance to generalize from what we've learned in our specialities. I'm going to end my ranting here. --Charlene

As future teachers, especially those of us in the elementary stream, we will be expected to know a little bit about everything. My take on the specialization vs. generalization issue is this: generalization forces teachers to continue learning. (Specialization does too but not to the same extent.) While specialization has its obvious benefits, generalization is more realistic. Not many schools can afford to pay an art specialist, a PE specialist, a music specialist and so on with one teacher responsible for his her or discipline. However, teachers who are responsible for teaching the broad spectrum of disciplines need to have resources. What better resource than a specialist?

This picture illustrates specialization and generalization, their differences, and their approaches to problem solving. The generalist approach is along the top – a relatively shallow but broad understanding of topics. The specialist approach is the depth of the figure, symbolizing the depth of knowledge in one particular discipline.

I don’t believe that there is a “best approach”. I think that combining generalization and specialization works well for schools and organizations. In elementary school, where there isn’t much depth in any subject, a generalist will suffice. But the idea of having specialists readily available to the teachers will benefit everyone in the school. As we move up through the grades where topics are studied more in depth, specialists are a good idea but there is always the possibility of being hired to teach something beyond your specialization. This is again where lifelong learning comes into the picture. Teachers must be willing and able to continue their learning beyond the classroom, whether they are generalists or specialists.
Here is the picture discussed above.

This is a link to a story ABC News did called “What Makes Great Teachers”. Steven Farr spent 10 years finding the common characteristics of great teachers. He discovered that extensive education and experience were not on that list; instead, great teachers were in tune with their students’ needs, flexible with lesson plans, and set very high goals for each child. I found it very interesting that being an expert in their discipline was not included in this list.

- Deirdre

Deirdre mentioned how there is no "best approach" to the balance between specialization and generalization. This made me think of how much teaching really is an art, not a science. Groat posted that wikipedia page on species that are generalists vs. specifics, and it states that any given species is neither one or the other, but exist on a spectrum. Thats a relevant analogy to our discussion, it isn't generalization VS. specialization, but and art in finding the most acceptable balance between the two to create the best learning environment for out students.

This reminds me of Malcolm Gladwell's - Outliers, and the section titled "The Trouble with Geniuses". He mentions how the majority of Nobel Prize winners have IQ's around 120-130 (very good but not spectacular), eventhough there are thousands of people in the United States alone that have IQ's well over 150 (which makes them geniuses). (I will try to actually be able to cite that by Thurs) The point being that we only need to be intelligent enough to make breakthroughs etc, and that super high intelligence and focus is of no use if we cannot communicate our ideas, or have the social skills to navigate in our world. This makes me think of teaching because we can become specialized past the point of relevancy to our students. Once we are completely fluent with the subject matter we will be teaching, I believe that is when we should begin the exploration of generalization. Which is actually how our education is currently structured by getting and undergrad degree first and then learning how to teach it.

My point being, for me to be an effective high school music teacher, I need to have complete fluency of the subject matter, plus a little, but no more. If I have a masters degree worth of knowledge in 20th century music theory, it would be of absolutely no use to my teaching practice. If B. Groat had an M.D.'s knowledge of the body, most of it would be useless in teaching P.E. The art of balance between specialization and generalization lies at the intersection of where our specific knowledge of our specialization surpasses our students ability to comprehend it. It is at this point where we should then shift gears to generalization and overall professional development in order to achieve our maximum potential as teachers.

- Ben C

When I was doing some research about specialization and generalization I came upon the idea of “T-Shaped” people and I thought it was actually a really nice way of describing people who are both specialists and generalists.

This is from a Wikipedia page describing the T-shaped person:

The vertical bar on the T represents the depth of related skills as expertise in a same field, whereas the horizontal bar is the ability to collaborate across disciplines with experts in other areas, and to apply knowledge in areas of expertise other than their own

I think that being both a generalist and a specialist is a good thing. I find this especially important for myself (elementary PE specialist) because often times PE teachers are non-existent in elementary schools. If I were to be strictly a specialist I would most likely have a hard time finding a job.

Ashley K

Hi folks, this is a fascinating discussion. When I took a closer look at the topic (finally on Wednesday...sorry about the imposed deadline) the first thought that jumped into my head was the distinction between creative and detail oriented people from the perspective of the learner. I found the following article that discussed characteristics of creativity from a brain based perspective. If you are interested, just read the intro and the discussion. There is a bunch of methodology mumbo jumbo in the middle. The article is:

"Attentional associative interactions in creativity"
Authors: Schmajuk, Aziz, Bates
From: Creativity Research Journal
Published: 2009

It states that creative people are:
  • better divergent thinkers
  • perform better at remote association tests i.e. linking two non-related concepts together
  • better problems solvers
  • have decreased latent inhibition (classical conditional paradigm where the presentation of a stimulus by itself later retards the formation of associations of that stimulus to other stimulus)
  • prone to over-generalization or over inclusion

Some definitions of creativity:
- Mednick considers creative thinking as the combination of different associations from
  • contiguity- accidental or temporal proximity between elements of association
  • generalization - sharing of common factors
  • mediation - simultaneous activation of both elements of the association

- Eysenck theory on creativity
  • cognition requires associations
  • differences in intelligence depend on the speed of associations
  • differences in creativity depend on the range of associations

Schmajak et al, the authors of the article, came up with a theory that combines the previous two and tried to quantify it. Their basic premise is that creative people pay more attention to novel stimulus. They also learn faster and retrieve memories faster than non-creative people. Or in other words they trade specificity for range as per Edelman that someone mentioned above. This also relates to Ashley's T shaped person of course.

So how would this inform our teaching practice. From a common sense perspective, we'll need to be aware that our classroom will be comprised of all types of learners and that we must take great care to present information in a variety of ways. I think this informs the social nature of learning as well meaning that having students work in groups of varying types of learners means that they can be exposed to different ways of thinking. I also think it's important to work from a sufficient model and work to strengths, rather than trying to improve weaknesses all the time. Oh yeah...and we need to to be aware of our own predispositions and how our way of thinking will inherently bias the way we teach in class.


I love that we will be discussing this, such great contributions and insight already. I'm finding it challenging to have a strong opinion either way. I know that as a student, as athlete and even with my hobbies, I look for courses/classes taught be experts and take into account the background of the individual who is teaching me...and far prefer when he/she has a specialty in what they are 'specialty' is defined is another issue as well... anyhow, what I am realizing, that in reality, specialization seems to be so limiting. When I applied for our U of C Ed Program, I really wanted to get into the secondary science stream as this is the field that I wanted to learn more about and where my passion lies. However, even though I have a strong science base from my Kinesiology degree and from working for a science education summer program for 2 years, I was denied entry as apparently I was not specialized enough to specialize more. Not that I don't like PE or want to be a PE teacher, I just want to learn and experience more to become more competent and well rounded. This way I would have more to offer when I do start looking for jobs, and if I do get hired, I would be able to contribute to more roles/positions within that school.

Below is a bit of what Ben Gordon "The Public Humanist" wrote in a blog. I thought it was a pretty well written example of the current trend of specialization in post secondary education:
“Consider a B.A. student who shows promise in historical studies. The student can choose not to specialize at the B.A. level but will probably opt to write a B.A. thesis on a pretty focused subject, simply because a thesis is expected of those who apply to graduate school.
When the student moves on to the M.A. level, the student will now be required to declare a specialty, such as modern Britain. Finally, for the Ph.D. the student must produce a very long dissertation on a specific topic within the specialty: charity groups in early Victorian England. At this stage, generalizing and synthesizing count for little. Showing complete mastery of the particular topic is everything.
Ironically, as the student advances through the degree system, he or she learns more and more about less and less.”__
Something else to think about is how early on specialization is taking place in primary and secondary schools as well (science schools, sport schools, fashion/cosmotology streams, etc...or even student having to choose which specific sciences they want to graduate with as it is an incredible course load to do all 3)...advantages and disadvantages I suppose. -Elise