about expert minds

scientific american has interesting things to say about the expert mind. this is my condensed version:

Studies of the mental processes of chess grandmasters have revealed clues to how people become experts in other fields as well.

Much of the chess master’s advantage over the novice derives from the first few seconds of thought. This rapid, knowledge-guided perception, sometimes called apperception, can be seen in experts in other fields as well.

How do experts acquire their extraordinary skills? How much can be credited to innate talent and how much to intensive training?

Perhaps the same techniques used by chess players to hone their skills could be applied in the classroom to teach reading, writing and arithmetic.

The history of human expertise begins with hunting, a skill that was crucial to the survival of our early ancestors. The mature hunter knows not only where the lion has been; he can also infer where it will go.

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.

Skill at chess, however, can be measured. The measurement of chess skill has been taken further than similar attempts with any other game, sport or competitive activity.

When confronted with a difficult position, a weaker chess 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.

Motivation appears to be a more important factor than innate ability in the development of expertise. It is no accident that in music, chess and sports–all domains in which expertise is defined by competitive performance rather than academic credentialing–professionalism has been emerging at ever younger ages, under the ministrations of increasingly dedicated parents and even extended families.

Teachers in sports, music and other fields tend to believe that talent matters and that they know it when they see it. In fact, they appear to be confusing ability with precocity. There is usually no way to tell, from a recital alone, whether a young violinist’s extraordinary performance stems from innate ability or from years of Suzuki-style training.

The preponderance of psychological evidence indicates that experts are made, not born. What is more, the demonstrated ability to turn a child quickly 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?”

go here for the whole article.

isabella mori
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