Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Learning to Become an Expert and Blogging

I found this piece from Scientific American, The Expert Mind by Phillip Ross, a really excellent read. There are several ideas in it that challenge our beliefs – principally on the innate smarts versus learned behavior dimension – this piece argues pretty convincingly that much if not all of this is learned behavior. A fascinating part of this is that experts can come to conclusions so quickly and the piece has a quote from the famous chess grandmaster Capablanca on this point to the effect that he doesn’t think harder than other players, but he things “righter” than other players – his intuitions were the correct ones and helped him to identify the superior play.

So experts don’t process information more than others in the sense of a computer doing numbers of calculations per second. They do about the same number of calculations as everyone else. But they do different calculations. They hold the information differently. They have structures of the mind – apparently there is some disagreement on how this works – that allows them to aggregate up the information very quickly and disaggregate down equally quickly in order to make a decision. And the thing is, the building of those structures of the mind is a learned thing – requiring rather intensive training, years and years of effort.

The piece spends much of the time on the work of a psychologist, Dr. K. Anders Ericsson, and his notion of learning called “effortful study.” It is an interesting notion and meant to distinguish between an idea we bat around all the time, “time on task.” They obviously must correlate but Ericsson’s point is that not all time put in improves learning and performance (witness the weekend golfer or tennis player who has put in perhaps years at the game but whose level of play doesn’t rise above mediocrity). Ross describes effortful study as the continuous tackling of challenges just beyond one’s reach.

If that is the key for learning then the issue of whether learning should be done in a social setting or more on an individualistic basis needs to be recast along the dual dimension of (1) motivation – what pushes people to take those next challenges rather than staying pat with what they have already accomplished? and (2) situated-ness – identifying those challenges that are just beyond one’s reach. My sense is that (1) will typically favor the argument for social learning but in children, particularly precocious ones or those who otherwise can’t readily go with the flow, it will favor the individual. On the other hand, (2) must favor individualistic learning. Who else can determine what is just beyond one’s reach? It may be that the individual can benefit from a tutor, or personal trainer, or the same idea by some other name, who become intimately acquainted with the individual’s performance and can make highly situated recommendations of what is to come next. But it is hard to see how there can be situated challenges that come from others less familiar with the individual.

It may be that what we call “learning to learn” is really learning to engage in effortful study. And, recalling Howard Gardner’s book on Exceptional Minds and specifically his chapter on Freud, this clearly involves a certain amount of personal risk taking and exposure to failure, which explains why so many of us stop short of the expert level and remain in our mediocre state.

I want to switch gears now and take a personal view of this by talking about my blogging. I don’t know if this was true right from the start, but for the last six months or so I’ve been conscious of a desire to push the writing and go beyond what I’ve done before. So one of the reasons the Ross piece resonated with me is that I find myself trying to do that with blogging and it seems to me a natural to use blogs for this purpose. As they asynchronous analog to thinking aloud, the blog is an obvious place to express what that next challenge is. But beyond that, the craft with which the ideas are expressed, the tying together different strands that interrelate, the making connections with the work of others that encouraged this line of thinking, all of that is something that blogs do well. (Incidentally, I’ve been reflecting on the difference between blogs and discussion boards and this seems to be an important way that the two differ and why regular blogging may lead to greater personal growth but conversely why discussion boards might better get the students to “learn the subject matter.”)

Let me illustrate by making such a connection here. A few posts back (Jen Dah) I led fof with a recommendation from Daniel Pink’s book to “celebrate our amateur-ness” as defined by Marcel Wanders. Read that passage by Wanders. It sure seems as if this notion of the amateur is quite like Ericsson’s idea of effortful study. A year ago, I’m not sure I would have seen the connection. The ideas are coming from different domains. Now that tie seems obvious and natural to me.

I’ll close with one other point. Most of my posts don’t push this way to something I couldn’t accomplish before. They have a point to be made and (I hope) a reasonable analysis, but I could have written those posts quite a while ago, based on the abilities I needed to bring to bear to do the writing. It is maybe 10% of the posts that have this aspect of going beyond what I’ve tried previously. I’m not sure why this is the case, but certainly I can’t just sit down at the keyboard and write the thing. I’ve got to work the ideas through and that can take a while.

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