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Building After-School Islands of Expertise in “Wrestling Club”

Victor Sensenig

Young children often develop areas of deep and rich knowledge before they enter school or during their out-of-school time. Crowley and Jacobs (2002) call these areas “islands of expertise.” These islands emerge over weeks or even years. They are bolstered by repeated, increasingly sophisticated conversations with adults and are integrated into multiple family activities, such as museum visits or targeted television viewing. According to Crowley and Jacobs, the development of expertise has several conditions: “repeated exposure to domain-specific declarative knowledge, repeated practice in interpreting new content, making inferences to connect new knowledge to existing knowledge, and repeated conversations with others who share or want to support the same interest” (p. 337).

The concept of islands of expertise suggests that informal social activities can make significant contributions to academic development. In their homes and neighborhoods, children can accumulate substantial knowledge about academic disciplines. In particular, the knowledge accrued in advanced conversations can establish children’s familiarity with abstract themes that persists when their interest in an island fades. For example, a child’s fascination with dinosaurs may be displaced by another interest, but the knowledge of abstract themes related to the topic—such as a rudimentary notion of Big History or the logic of taxonomy—may remain. The knowledge networks, or schemas, built around these islands of expertise aid processes of remembering and classifying. Schema allow children to pay less attention to the structure of certain activities and more attention to content, such as when the drama of a baseball game emerges after one is familiar with the rules. When the information-processing load decreases, information acquisition accelerates. According to Neuman and Celano (2012), differential opportunity for children to pursue expertise is a major contributor to the knowledge gap between children from neighborhoods of poverty and children from neighborhoods of privilege.