Thursday, October 13, 2011

Speed to expertise in five easy steps

By now we all have heard of Malcolm Gladwell's "10,000 hour rule," which he put forward in his book Outliers. If you want to master something, you need something like ten thousand hours of serious, dedicated practice. Only then can you become truly outstanding. This isn't original with Gladwell, three guys named Ericsson, Krampe, and Tesch-Romer were writing about this in 1993 (look here). It's a very persuasive argument, but it doesn't help much when you're trying to teach students or train employees. "Okay, I think you've got the hang of it now. Keep practicing that, and I'll be back in about... oh, ten years or so to see how you're coming along."

The fact is, we need an acceptable level of mastery, and we need it now. We don't need to split the arrow; we need to hit the target. We need competence. So the question becomes, how do we get this level of mastery out of a novice within the normal time frames of actual life. Or if not life, then education--classes, courses, semesters, and programs. Is it possible? How is it possible?

Here are five answers which, interestingly enough, come from the field of... expertise. Yes, there are people whose expertise is expertise. David F. Feldon is one of them, and he has an oft-quoted paper to prove it... all about the role of expertise in pedagogy and curriculum. Download it here, It's worth a read. But then, if you were looking for a scholarly article you probably wouldn't be storming the blogosphere, so let me pick a little low-hanging fruit and serve it up with the chilled wine of my own experience and observation. (I'll try to keep the cheese to a minimum.)

One. It's not just knowledge. The popular idea that experts simply know more is untrue. Wait, they do know more... that part is true. It's the "simply" part that is untrue. What experts do with their knowledge, how they manipulate it, how they categorize it, how they think about it, or don't think about it... that's what makes them experts.

Practical application: Knowledge is only one factor, so don't focus on it exclusively. "Death by PowerPoint" leads not to expertise, but rather to death. Or at least a semi-comatose state. You really need to start with how experts got to be experts in the first place.

Two. Don't count on experts to tell you how they got to be experts. The accuracy of self-reports by experts has been studied, and the results are not encouraging. Just to pull one of Feldon's little nuggets from its context: "...self-report errors and omissions increased as skills improved." (p.99) What this means is, many experts don't know, and may even misrepresent, how they got so good. My own experience is that world-class experts, and I've dealt with a few, are often wrapped snugly in the soft, warm blankets of ego, and will always have an answer for you, even if it's wrong. Or even if it comes not from sober reflection but rather from that mini-myth that is the human self-image. Which in experts has sometimes grown greater, and more mythical, in concert with the accolades.

An example... the big league pitcher who explained that the secret to his curve ball was the way he spun his fingers as he let go of the ball. Until slow-motion cameras clearly showed that the ball had already left his hand and traveled a foot or two before those fingers did their twitching.

Practical application: Let Superman save you, but trust Lex Luthor's data. (Hey. He's a scientist.) Use and choose content based on the data--what the experts in your field actually do, and don't do, as measured by people whose job it is to measure it.

Three. Big Buckets. Experts know how to sort through new data, new situations, contradictory information, just about anything that falls within their area of expertise, and place it into an appropriate category in order to address it, resolve it, or perhaps ignore it. You've seen this a thousand times, whenever you're dealing with an expert in an area in which you are not one. Take me and my auto mechanic. "The car kind of vibrates and makes a funny noise," I say. "Does the steering wheel vibrate?" He asks. "The whole car!" I answer. But what he's doing is going through systems. He's categorizing, eliminating possibilities. If the steering isn't particularly affected, it's probably not front end alignment. So then he probes some other category. "Is the noise always the same?" "Well," I answer, "it's a lot less noticeable when I turn the radio up." (I did say I wasn't an expert.)

Practical application: Teach categories right from the start. The categories are something you actually can get with accuracy from those same vaunted experts... and you want the categories that the experts use, not the ones that the textbook writers use. It may take a little probing, but your SME will give you his or her big buckets. And those buckets are what learners need, so they have a practical place to keep and carry all the knowledge from those PowerPoint slide decks.

Four. Principles and theories. Experts know their way around the theoretical framework of their field, and are not typically hindered by what the answer "should be." A novice will assume a required solution and try to get there any way possible, usually by trial and error, while an expert will back up, assess all the inputs in light of their whole frame of reference, which is bounded only by the principles that underlie all solutions. Then the expert will get to the answer on a much deeper, more permanent level.

Here's an example. Remember the "I Love Lucy" scene where the candy conveyor belt was moving too fast for Lucy and Ethel? Me neither, not that old, but I found it online here. This is classic comedy, but it's also classic (though exaggerated) novice behavior. "Stop the candy from going by too fast" is their assumed solution, what they're trying to accomplish, but their frame of reference is limited to what they know how to do (grab candy, wrap candy, eat candy), and so everything they try is a bigger, funnier failure. But an expert would understand the bigger picture, the more general concepts, and so would know how the conveyor belt works, where to find a kill switch, when to go get help to avoid a bigger crisis. Shut it down until you get it right, would be the expert's general principle.

Practical application: Teach the big, underlying principles. Maybe you're doing training, and you're thinking this is no place for graduate level content. But knowing only the nuts and bolts is not going to lead to expertise, or even to competence, but to chaos.

But then... the principles alone won't do it either. You need...

. Automaticity. Automatic-ness. The ability to perform the simple parts of complex functions subconsciously. Automatically. Experts don't have to think through everything, they can think about the higher-level requirements because the lower-level requirements are on auto-pilot. From Feldon (p. 98):
Expert sight-reading performance in music is a clear example of this process. While playing music with typical features, expert pianists rely on automated skills to recognize patterns and strike the appropriate keys in sequence (Lehmann & McArthur, 2002). Concurrently, they dedicate their conscious processing to dynamic synchronization with other performers. When the novelty or visual complexity of the sheet music exceeds the threshold of transfer for automated sight-reading skills, the musician engages in effortful, deliberate encoding to mediate the execution of the necessary subprocesses.
Translation: Sight-reading the music has to be automatic so they can focus on the art. When it's not automatic, they have go back and practice to make it automatic.

Practical application: Drill and practice, baby, drill and practice! Maybe it's out of fashion, but the fact is, "acquired automaticity facilitates the development of expertise." Maybe your learners need to know how to answer certain customer questions, or deal with certain patient behaviors, or use a handful of complex formulas over and over to get to complex solutions. Get the new recruits to memorize. Drill them until they can do the core parts of it every time, even if that means giving them six or eight or fifteen statements that should be said to customers, all the time. "Mantras," if you will. Work with learners on those few, key, foundational skills or knowledge sets until they are automatic with them, this will absolutely increase their speed to expertise.

To sum up, you can get to competence a lot quicker than 10,000 hours if you follow the path that experts take. Teach them the knowledge, but always within the big buckets that experts use to solve problems. Give them the principles and theories, the framework on which the required behaviors stand or fall. Drill them on the key behaviors that should be automatic.

And never let the experts convince you they know how they got to be experts. Unless of course, your experts are experts on being experts.

[new potential format addition: take a look here and let me know what you think.]

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