Our schools have many problems, but their main problem-- the root problem if you will, is their inability to teach a large percentage of students. And, of the students that they do manage to teach, they teach incorrectly.
This article explains why in layman's' terms. So let's get to it.
But how do the experts in these various subjects acquire their extraordinary skills? How much can be credited to innate talent and how much to intensive training? Psychologists have sought answers in studies of chess masters. The collected results of a century of such research have led to new theories explaining how the mind organizes and retrieves information. What is more, this research may have important implications for educators. Perhaps the same techniques used by chess players to hone their skills could be applied in the classroom to teach reading, writing and arithmetic.I don't think I need to point out that our schools are more concerned with cranking out credentialled students rather than expert students. To create a credentialled student all you need to do is keep him in his seat for 13 years and have him pass some minimal skills test periodically, at the end of the day the student might have the skills of a novice. To create an expert student you need to teach him so that he can demonstrate superior skills by the end of school.
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.
What's the difference between an expert and a novice? Experts have a vast storehouse of intricately structured knowledge at their disposal, novices do not. More importantly, the expert's analytic abilities are not necessarily superior to those of the novice. This is not to say that the expert doesn't use his analytic abilities to develop his structured knowledge (as I'll explain later). This is a critical distinction and one completely lost on our educators who focus on developing analytic skills (which are largely immutable) and neglect developing knowledge which they deride as mere facts.
In a famous experiment Dutch psychologist Adriaan de Groot studied the ability of chess players to recreate chess piece positions from memory.
De Groot also had his subjects examine a position for a limited period and then try to reconstruct it from memory. Performance at this task tracked game-playing strength all the way from novice to grandmaster. Beginners could not recall more than a very few details of the position, even after having examined it for 30 seconds, whereas grandmasters could usually get it perfectly, even if they had perused it for only a few seconds. This difference tracks a particular form of memory, specific to the kind of chess positions that commonly occur in play. The specific memory must be the result of training, because grandmasters do no better than others in general tests of memory.
Similar results have been demonstrated in bridge players (who can remember cards played in many games), computer programmers (who can reconstruct masses of computer code) and musicians (who can recall long snatches of music). Indeed, such a memory for the subject matter of a particular field is a standard test for the existence of expertise.
Guess what happened when De Groot set-up the chess boards randomly instead of from actual game play? The experts performed no better than novices.
But what about the analytic ability of the chess players?
Recent research has shown that de Groot's findings reflected in part the nature of his chosen test positions. A position in which extensive, accurate calculation is critical will allow the grandmasters to show their stuff, as it were, and they will then search more deeply along the branching tree of possible moves than the amateur can hope to do. So, too, experienced physicists may on occasion examine more possibilities than physics students do. Yet in both cases, the expert relies not so much on an intrinsically stronger power of analysis as on a store of structured knowledge. When confronted with a difficult position, a weaker player may calculate for half an hour, often looking many moves ahead, yet miss the right continuation, whereas a grandmaster sees the move immediately, without consciously analyzing anything at all.And in case you aren't convinced yet.
The conclusion that experts rely more on structured knowledge than on analysis is supported by a rare case study of an initially weak chess player, identified only by the initials D.H., who over the course of nine years rose to become one of Canada's leading masters by 1987. 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.E.D. Hirsch, the developer of Core Knowledge, has been making this same point for years now:
You Can Always Look It Up -- Or Can You?Not So Grand a Strategy
So has cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham:
Practice Makes Perfect--But Only If You Practice Beyond the Point of Perfection
I suggest reading all four articles to learn about chunking theory, short term working memory, the magic number seven (+/- two), and long term working memory. These are all critical elements that will help you understand how experts think.
We'll meet back up in part two and learn how experts are made.