Experts and the Science of Relations

A few years back Scientific American published an article on how experts are made, or rather, about how scientists attempted to discover how experts became experts.  It’s science, so they wanted something measurable, even though it’s hard to do that when working with the human mind. However, chess acumen provides a fairly measurable standard, so that’s what researchers looked at- chess champions. How did they get to be chess champions?

In one series of studies the players were blindfolded. The researcher posited that the players must have a near photographic image of the board and pieces, but he learned that this wasn’t true. What they had was a general idea of the pieces in relation to each other, and this idea was more abstract than concrete. The chess-master doesn’t have to remember details “because he can reconstruct any particular detail whenever he wishes by tapping a well-organized system of connections.”  Emphasis mine.

Of course, that brought to mind Charlotte Mason’s principle that “Education is the Science of Relations.” What researchers learned is that “the expert relies not so much on an intrinsically stronger power of analysis as on a store of structured knowledge.”  Think about that- it wasn’t analysis that mattered as much as having a good collection of knowledge organized in the mind.

In order to have a store of structured knowledge, of course, we have to fill the store-room. Charlotte Mason also addressed this when she said that children ought to have a wide and generous curriculum. She complained that many educators of her day believed that it is “more important that a child should think than that he should know. My contention is rather that he cannot know without having thought; and also that he cannot think without an abundant, varied, and regular supply of the material of knowledge.”  Emphasis mine again.

One interesting study tracked a mediocre player who rose to the level of master player over the course of nine years.

Neil Charness, professor of psychology at Florida State University, showed that despite the increase in the player’s strength, he analyzed chess positions no more extensively than he had earlier, relying instead on a vastly improved knowledge of chess positions and associated strategies.

Emphasis mine once more. Surely we have all experienced that confusing truth that the more we know the more we understand, yet the more we realize we don’t know!  And in spite of learning and knowing only to reach the point of realizing how ignorant we are, the more we also realize we can know. Read one well-written book and we learn new words, and new ideas are presented with new food for thought. Read a second living book, and even if it’s not on the same topic and has nothing in common with the previous book except that both are living (or so we think),  our knowledge base increases exponentially rather than additionally, because what we learned in the first book is broadened and expanded in the second, and what we read in the second sheds light on ideas from the first, and both combine to give us new insight into what we see and hear around us.  New words will have been used in one context in the first book, and they are used again in the second book with a slightly different context, adding nuance to our understanding.  Phrases, ideas, connections, concepts, these strike our brains with force- and which ideas strike us, which connections we make will be deeply influenced by who we are, where we are in life, and what we have read and experienced before (this is partially why vocabulary tests and ‘critical thinking’ lessons are not much use in real education).   We think we are adding information, but in reality, when in the realm of ideas and connections and the mind we are dealing in compounding square roots.    The connections we recognize multiply, expand, and stretch us,  and the sum is greater than the parts.

In order to get this rich, mental nourishment, notice the three components she mentioned: abundant, varied, and regular.

Regular servings of the mind food that comes from good books: Connections build this way.  You have to read broadly and you have to read in order to know to make the best of these connections.  We do make some important connections and expand our minds even through haphazard, careless reading (especially if we are reading great books), but reading to know, and providing the mind with regular servings provide for better understanding, healthier minds, and a better mental environment for thinking through the ideas and seeing the connections we are exposed to.  We want a steady diet rather than a gluttonous feast one month and starvation from books another month.  To quote a great book- slow and steady wins the race.

Abundant and varied: In addition to regular servings of the food for the mind (ideas, which are found in living books), we want abundant servings, and we want variety. We have to read many good books, and read broadly (that wide curriculum Miss Mason talked about).

It’s not the idea that doing well in Algebra makes you better at analyzing literature because

“ability in one area tends not to transfer to another. American psychologist Edward Thorndike first noted this lack of transference over a century ago, when he showed that the study of Latin, for instance, did not improve command of English and that geometric proofs do not teach the use of logic in daily life.”

Experts, it seems, don’t really know more, but they organize information in connecting parts and are better able to pull up those chunks of information. But it takes time and work to build up that knowledge base:

The one thing that all expertise theorists agree on is that it takes enormous effort to build these structures in the mind. Simon coined a psychological law of his own, the 10-year rule, which states that it takes approximately a decade of heavy labor to master any field. Even child prodigies, such as Gauss in mathematics, Mozart in music and Bobby Fischer in chess, must have made an equivalent effort, perhaps by starting earlier and working harder than others.

Since what we want is to give our children as many relations with as many topics as possible to establish this wide knowledge base and then to recognize the connections all around us, it’s more important that our young students, for example,  read and learn poetry than that they spend their time making uninformed judgments about  things like which poet has the ‘keener eye’ for nature than others.   This is why we give them a wide array of subjects to study- nature, botany, stars, poetry, hymns, Bible, history, literature, art, music, and more.   This is why they should spend more time reading and writing about what they are reading than in creative writing exercises where they ‘express themselves.’  I am speaking here of assigned writings- children who write creative stories on their own should of course be left to follow that muse in their free time and encouraged appropriately, it’s just not really an appropriate assigned topic for ten year olds, for instance.

Children (like the rest of us) express themselves as a matter of course. What they don’t do is inform themselves without a little practice and guidance as to what to read and how to direct their attention, as Miss Mason explained a century ago:

There are bird-witted people, who have no power of thinking connectedly for five minutes under any pressure, from within or from without. If they have never been trained to apply the whole of their mental faculties to a given subject, why, no energy of will, supposing they had it, which is impossible, could make them think steadily thoughts of their own choosing or of anyone else’s. Here is how the parts of the intellectual fabric dovetail: power of will implies power of attention; and before the parent can begin to train the will of the child, he must have begun to form in him the habit of attention.

Or, as one scientist explained in the S.A. article:

…what matters is not experience per se but “effortful study,” which entails continually tackling challenges that lie just beyond one’s competence. That is why it is possible for enthusiasts to spend tens of thousands of hours playing chess or golf or a musical instrument without ever advancing beyond the amateur level and why a properly trained student can overtake them in a relatively short time.

Emphasis mine again. Effortful study:  we read in order to know, and if we do not read we do not know.   Read in order to know.  Tackle challenges just beyond your comfort zone.  Whatever you or your children are reading or doing, try kicking it up a notch so it’s just a little harder. After that gets somewhat comfortable,  then kick it up again. And then again. We (by which I mean me) tend to reject that. We not only want to do things the easy, lazy way, we want to find some way to reinvent that as the more virtuous way. This shows that we are ‘relaxed,’ not driven, rigid, or ‘A-type.

‘Even the novice engages in effortful study at first, which is why beginners so often improve rapidly in playing golf, say, or in driving a car. But having reached an acceptable performance–for instance, keeping up with one’s golf buddies or passing a driver’s exam–most people relax. Their performance then becomes automatic and therefore impervious to further improvement. In contrast, experts-in-training keep the lid of their mind’s box open all the time, so that they can inspect, criticize and augment its contents and thereby approach the standard set by leaders in their fields.

Are we (meaning me) allowing ourselves (meaning myself) to be ‘impervious to further improvement?’ When we put it that way it sounds a little less noble, doesn’t it? I should so much prefer to believe that I just have no talent for playing an instrument, for housecleaning or for math than to believe, as the researchers suggest, that:

motivation appears to be a more important factor than innate ability in the development of expertise.

We must read in order to know.  Is that why we are reading, why our children are reading?

I’m not sure I completely agree with every single word and nuance behind that when it comes to becoming an expert musician or chess player, but I do suspect there’s more general truth to it that applies to reading and learning and recognizing the connections that make for real knowledge than I find comfortable.

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One Comment

  1. Lisa Beth W.
    Posted July 24, 2018 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

    Oooooh, yes. That last quoted paragraph rang true with me. Not to vaunt myself, but I see that as a difference between my husband and me. He is relaxed and my mind is more open and eager to advance. Now, I don’t always choose the most relevant or important things to advance in…

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