Expertise

16Aug06

Science & Technology at Scientific American.com: The Expert Mind — [ PSYCHOLOGY AND BRAIN SCIENCE ] — Studies of the mental processes of chess grandmasters have revealed clues to how people become experts in other fields as well:

The preponderance of psychological evidence indicates that experts are made, not born. What is more, the demonstrated ability to turn a child q uickly into an expert–in chess, music and a host of other subjects–sets a clear challenge before the schools. Can educators find ways to encourage students to engage in the kind of effortful study that will improve their reading and math skills? Roland G. Fryer, Jr., an economist at Harvard University, has experimented with offering monetary rewards to motivate students in underperforming schools in New York City and Dallas. In one ongoing program in New York, for example, teachers test the students every three weeks and award small amounts–on the order of $10 or $20–to those who score well. The early results have been promising. Instead of perpetually pondering the question, “Why can’t Johnny read?” perhaps educators should ask, “Why should there be anything in the world he can’t learn to do?”

Great article in Scientific American about the genesis of expertise. Some interesting points:

  • Experts use chunked memory by understanding things in context. Hence to an expert, an entire chess board is several chunks of related positions, while for a beginner, it’s every single piece in every single position. (Oh, and this research was done by folks at CMU. Herbert Simon, I’m looking at you…)
  • The 10 year rule. It’s very difficult to build the mental structures required to become an expert, and on average it takes about 10 years.
  • My favorite: there’s very little evidence for the notion that innate ability plays heavily into one’s ability to become an experts. Empirical evidence suggests that motivation is a far more powerful contributor. (Oh, and before this research got really famous, my thesis advisor was explaining his work on the subject to our economics of inequality class!)
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