In August of ’06, Scientific American published this article on how we think and how experts are made:
“Teachers in sports, music, and other fields tend to believe that talent matters and that they know it when they see it. In fact, they appear to be confusing ability with precocity. There is usually no way to tell, from a recital alone, whether a young violinist’s extraordinary performance stems from innate ability or from years of Suzuki-style training. The preponderance of psychological evidence indicates that experts are made, not born. In fact, it takes approximately a decade of heavy labor to master any field.”
Which all reminds me of this quote from Terry Pratchett’s Wee Free Men:
“…if you trust in yourself…”
“…and believe in your dreams…”
“…and follow your star…”
“…you’ll still get beaten by people who spent their time working
hard and learning things and weren’t so lazy.”
There is more there. How do experts think? How do they store, process, and pull up what they know? What goes into the making of an expert? And how do we measure expertise?
Without a demonstrably immense superiority in skill over the novice, there can be no true experts, only laypeople with imposing credentials. Such, alas, are all too common. Rigorous studies in the past two decades have shown that professional stock pickers invest no more successfully than amateurs, that noted connoisseurs distinguish wines hardly better than yokels, and that highly credentialed psychiatric therapists help patients no more than colleagues with less advanced degrees. And even when expertise undoubtedly exists–as in, say, teaching or business management–it is often hard to measure, let alone explain.
Chess, however, provides a 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.”
Which of course reminded me of 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.”
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.”
Experts, it seems, don’t really know more than the rest of us- they organize their 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.
What it takes is somewhat informed effort,
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. Whatever you or your children are reading or doing, kicking it up a notch so it’s just a little harder. And 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.
I’m not sure I completely agree with that, but I suspect there’s more truth to it than I find comfortable.
It’s also true that the better we are at something initially, the more we like it and try it again:
success builds on success, because each accomplishment can strengthen a child’s motivation. A 1999 study of professional soccer players from several countries showed that they were much more likely than the general population to have been born at a time of year that would have dictated their enrollment in youth soccer leagues at ages older than the average.
For parents, this indicates that one of the best ways to help children love learning is to give them small successes in the beginning of their study, whether that is in cooking, reading, math, music, sports, or spelling. Charlotte Mason addressed this, too, saying that lessons should be short, and that they should be ended on a successful note- with a math problem the child will be sure to get right, for instance.