September 6, 2006

Schools Don't Create Experts

There is a great article, The Expert Mind, over at Scientific American. Go read the whole thing right now. Then we'll discuss.

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.


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.

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.

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

How Knowledge Helps

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.


Anonymous said...

Sure, but the problem is that with the educrats, it's all buzzwords, and they hold onto their notions, no matter how wrong, as long as it supports their idea. Example. Back in the 80s when I was writing neural nets and working with AI and language learning, I had a particularly fluff-brained newly-minted Ed PhD colleague. She found out what my area of research was and said something like, "Oooo, I think connectionism is really cool, it supports active learning and project based learning!"

I replied, a bit drying, that no, actually, connectionism supports rote memorization and repetition. Why? Because the more you repeat an input, the stronger the connection becomes and the more likely you will get the correct output in response to the input. That's the nature of neural nets. It's how they work.

She tried to argue with me, but she had no idea what she was talking about because her sole sources of information were ed psych people who likewise had no idea what they were talking about. I worked with her for two years. The second year, she dropped "connectionism" has her pet scientific justification for "chaos theory."

I have never been able to get somebody to explain what implications chaos theory could possibly have for pedagogy, and frankly, I just can't imagine.

KDeRosa said...

Sure, but the problem is that with the educrats, it's all buzzwords, and they hold onto their notions, no matter how wrong, as long as it supports their idea.

No doubt about that. Pointing out why they are wrong is one thing, getting them to do the right this is another.

That would be education problem #2. It's probably the more serious problem, but you can't reach problem #2 unless you establish that they are wrong in the first place.

Dennis Fermoyle said...

As I've indicated in a couple of my posts, E. D. Hirsch's ideas make sense to me. When I earned my Master's a few years ago, I was disappointed that none of the classes that I took included any of his work. I was annoyed by the fact that most of the classes seemed to be pushing the same "progressive" approaches, but I wasn't penalized for taking issue with them. I am a traditionalist at heart. Nevertheless, I think you put too much emphasis on teaching methods.

I believe that if all schools followed Hirsch's suggested approach, there would be improvement, but not nearly as much as you do. I'm convinced that the most important factor in any particular student's education is the effort that student makes. That, of course, is based on how much of a priority education is to that student. The biggest problem in American education is that not enough students make their own education a high enough priority. Every year I see students of various social classes with various ability levels do well because they are willing to try. And every year I see other kids of various ability levels do poorly because they just don't care.

When kids really care, it's amazing how just about any teaching method seems to be successful. But when kids don't give a rip, nothing works.

TurbineGuy said...

I'm convinced that the most important factor in any particular student's education is the effort that student makes.

My daughter is very bright and way above average in math. Unfortunately her brother in the same grade is exceptionally good at math, and she finds herself constantly comparing herself to him. This has caused her to become a somewhat reluctant and unmotivated while doing her math homework... i.e. she doesn't put in enough effort. The problem with laying off to much of the blame on a student "trying" is that these challenged students have been placed in classes with stronger students throughout their educational career. Of course they will develop an inferiority complex and give up. If they had been taught with students of similar abilities and at a speed commiserate with their capabilities, I am guessing that they would of been just as eager to learn as everyone else.

We have learned that if we keep our two 3rd graders apart while doing homework that they both do better and they are both more motivated. One more common sense idea that most parents could figure out, but schools can't.

KDeRosa said...

Dennis, if you look at the results of project follow through you'll see an effect size approaching a standard deviation. This is sufficient to raise scores by 30 percentage points. For example, that would translate into a 200 point increase in SAT scores. I'd settle for that.

Re student motivation, how do you know that the bad instruction isn't causing the lack of motivation? The lots of evidence that supports such a notion. See here.

KDeRosa said...

You might also want to check out the first half of this article.

Anonymous said...

Hirsch's new book KNOWLEDGE DEFICIT is terrific.

Anonymous said...

Of course they will develop an inferiority complex and give up. If they had been taught with students of similar abilities and at a speed commiserate with their capabilities, I am guessing that they would of been just as eager to learn as everyone else.

The challenges is that "giving up" isn't obvious to the adult onlooker, including the parent.

Our son had given up on math after failing the last two units of 4th grade math. But we had no idea this had happened. We thought he just didn't like math and wasn't very good at it.

He was saying things like, "Math is for geeks" and "Math is for nerds."

(Also - my favorite - "I'm not from Singapore.")

The instant he began doing well in math again, as I retaught the course that summer, he started saying, "I like math." Moreover, he was good at math when taught using a good textbook - as good as he was at any other subject except maybe social studies at that age.

That was an eye opener.

I now think that to be on the safe side parents & teachers should assume that a student who is acting turned off or unmotivated is doing so as a defense.

The "defense mechanism" hypothesis may be wrong in any given case, but as in medicine it should be ruled out first.

Once you're sure the problem isn't that the child feels he'll fail if he tries (I don't know how to figure that out, but experienced teachers probably do) then move on to other hypotheses & other ways to motivate effort.

Anonymous said...

The connectionist model absolutely supports memorization.

That's the principal behind Hebbian memory, I believe. The connections amongst cells are strengthened with each repetition.

Anonymous said...

It's possible rightwingprof's colleague was interested in emergent properties....

But the notion of an emergent property also supports acquiring large bodies of "domain knowledge."

Problem-solving & creativity appear to be emergent properties.

(Willingham told me he was going to write an article on problem-solving, but so far no luck.)