Monday, August 14, 2006

Effortful Study: It Only Takes a Decade

"[E]xperts-in-training keep the lid of their mind's box open all the time, so that they can inspect, criticize and augment its contents and thereby approach the standard set by leaders in their fields."

This is from a recent article in Scientific American that talks about the development of expertise. The example author Philip E. Ross chooses is chess, but apparently it holds true for all fields: practice, practice, practice really is what gets you to Carnegie Hall, not "genius."

Scientists of the mind like to look at chess players to understand how brains work. One thing that interests them is how grandmasters (sorry for the sexist term: there are female grandmasters as well) can figure out what move to make in seconds. They do this much too quickly to actually be analyzing things. One explanation for this is memory--grandmasters are able to remember information in much bigger and more complex clusters than novices can. They do this by putting hierarchies of information into "chunks," mental file folders that are precisely labeled and ordered, rather than the flurry of unbound papers that flies in the psychic air around novices. There are competing theories about how this works, but for the most part it's about building patterns of memory in the mind that allow for efficient sorting. And that brings us to the really interesting bit:

The one thing that all expertise theorists agree on is that it takes enormous effort to build these structures in the mind. Simon coined a psychological law of his own, the 10-year rule, which states that it takes approximately a decade of heavy labor to master any field.

Ross introduces the notion of "effortful study" as the single thing that distinguishes experts from everybody else. Striving for improvement consistently over a long period of time creates mastery. Motivation, the constant desire to look critically at your performance and modify it based on experience, is most important.

I found the part about memory interesting, thinking of the story of Ihara Saikaku, who is supposed to have composed over 20,000 hokku in a single 24-hour session. I don't believe he managed quite so many, but I'll accept that he composed a lot. Poets who wrote linked verse had to be able to improvise quickly. There are lots of complicated rules in linked verse, and huge amounts of information to remember. I wonder if it's the case the really good ones were similar to the modern chess grandmasters Ross is talking about--even though they were working with new situations every time, in fact, they did it all from memory.

I also found the article very encouraging as we move into the beginning of the new academic year. It's good evidence for students that working hard has its rewards. Even though the "ten-year rule" might seem to be daunting, in a way it's reassuring. It takes time to get good at anything. But if you take the time, you will get good at it. Research proves it.

What a relief.