Day 92 (of 189) thoughts on Range by @davidepstein
Compare yourself to yourself yesterday, not to younger people who aren’t you.
I like the introduction – especially the reflection on Tiger Woods and his rise to fame – specializing early and exclusively on golf compared to Roger Federer has no pressure to do tennis – and did a lot of other things early on; along with a championship soccer team that was also made up of “late bloomers” – while early focus makes sense in theory, the “one in a million” tigers may indeed be the exception and not the norm – if anything generalized skills may be better than highly specialized focus…. in sports…medicine (if you’re having a heart attack, best to have it during a cardiologist conference so the specialist will likely be away….) …. and life???
Chapter One: the cult of the head start
While “head starts” can help in skills that are routine oriented (chess golf and firefighting being examples) is is seen that when chaos disrupts the expected patterns, sometimes the ‘experts’ struggle….
“Our greatest strength is the exact opposite of narrow specialization. It is the ability to integrate broadly”
The world feels like we would do “better” on a single lane of focus, but it is those who have an “8 lane highway” of broad experiences help them avoid ‘the same old patterns’ and flourish.
Educators talk a lot about getting a head start. It’s humbling to have to rethink this…..
Chapter 2: How the wicked world was made
Modernization has impacted things such as IQ scores (which need to be “restandardized” every so often because each generation has done ‘better’ on the tests) by raising awareness of cultural understanding – right answers may be different based on context – such as a sorting exercise asking which doesn’t belong: bullet gun bird knife – some will see all as mutually connected.
As it were: “To use a common metaphor, premodern people miss the forest for the trees; modern people miss the trees for the forest.”
Modern work requires: knowledge transfer (abstract thinking)
“This is not to say that one way of life is uniformly better than another. As Arab historiographer Ibn Khaldun, considered a founder of sociology, pointed out centuries ago, a city dweller traveling through the desert will be completely dependent on a nomad to keep him alive. So long as they remain in the desert, the nomad is a genius.”
How many “majors” are working within their field of study – even though so often that specialized subject focuses only on a narrow set of tools that work best with that discipline? When I was upon university the joke was Arts majors will get good work at the McDonalds counter, with the rebuttal being the Science majors get to operate the fry machine….. and thinking about how Alberta is looking at funding post-secondary based on outcomes, woe be thee who wishes to study philosophy…. https://calgaryherald.com/news/local-news/alberta-moves-to-outcomes-based-approach-to-post-secondary-funding
“The more constrained and repetitive a challenge, the more likely it will be automated, while great rewards will accrue to those who can take conceptual knowledge from one problem or domain and apply it in an entirely new one.”
Chapter 3: when less of the same is more
Baroque music hit a literal high note thanks to a bit of forgotten history – talented musicians that were orphans and (gasp) females who learned a wide cross section is musical instruments- some of which have even been lost to time – but only formally practicing a couple times a week – a far cry from the self proclaimed tiger mom who limited her children to violin or piano only. And five hours of practice a day…. a sharp difference between “getting to do music” and “having to do music”…..
But after all YoYoMa was a prodigy cellist…. except he also started on violin then the piano and finally to cello because he didn’t like the first two instruments / his “sampling” was just a bit quicker than a typical student… whereas tiger parents want to choose the passion for their child – much as parents will approach coaches wanting their kids to do the skills olympians were doing now….not what the olympians were doing when they were younger… a sampling period is important which is why I am okay in geniushour when learners pursue a passion and discover it isn’t what they actually enjoy…..
“The jazz musician is a creative artist, the classical musician is a re-creative artist”
“Compared ya the Tiger Mother’s tome, a parenting manual oriented toward creative achievement would have to open with a much shorter list of rules.”
Creativity may be difficult to nurture but it is easy to thwart.
Wow wow wow wow wow wow:
Chapter 4: Learning Fast and Slow
“Students do not view mathematics as a system,” Richland and her colleagues wrote. They view it as just a set of procedures”
“When younger students bring home problems that force them to make connections, Richland told me, “parents are like, ‘Lemme show you, there’s a faster, easier way.’” If the teacher didn’t already turn the work into using-procedures practice, well-meaning parents will. They aren’t comfortable with bewildered kids, and they want understanding to come quickly and easily. But for learning that is both durable (it sticks) and flexible (it can be applied broadly), fast and easy is precisely the problem.”
“Excessive hint-giving, like in the eighth-grade math classroom, does the opposite; it bolsters immediate performance, but undermines progress in the long run.”
“Struggling to generate an answer on your own, even a wrong one, enhances subsequent learning. Socrates was apparently on to something when he forced pupils to generate answers rather than bestowing them”
“they were shown only the definition and given a little time to think of the right word, even if they had no clue, before it was revealed. When they were tested later, students did way better on the definition-first words. The experiment was repeated on students at Columbia University, with more obscure words (Characterized by haughty scorn: Supercilious). The results were the same. Being forced to generate answers improves subsequent learning even if the generated answer is wrong.”
Wow – I even did a separate blog on this chapter: https://technolandy.wordpress.com/2020/01/09/day-81-of-189-interleaving-via-davidepstein/
Chapter 5: Thinking Outside Experience
I like this one: “Deep analogical thinking is the practice of recognizing conceptual similarities in multiple domains or scenarios that may seem to have little in common on the surface” <- a powerful tool to use on wicked problems
It’s kinda why UDL – Universal Design Learning that influences education came from the study of….. architecture. And yes, I was a doubter at first. But much of UDL has ended up fitting nicely into my own work around Personalized Learning…. but looking at a topic from a variety of lenses and directions gives deeper insights and connections than the rather less reliable rote memorization.
Some neat looks at projects and designing curriculum et al – “a widespread phenomenon. If you’re asked to predict whether a particular horse will win a race or a particular politician will win an election, the more internal details you learn about any particular scenario—physical qualities of the specific horse, the background and strategy of the particular politician—the more likely you are to say that the scenario you are investigating will occur.”
Which made me think of an old Richard Dreyfus movie “Let it Ride” where a gambler uses a unique strategy to win a series of bets – he asks a bunch of people for their opinions and crossed off the ones that people were most certain of….. having used to go to horse races with my family, I appreciate the success of that strategy….
It’s also along the reason why so often budgets are always gone over – it’s hard to consider (and be honest about) outlier influences that those not-involved may be able to better see (as my wife points out on some of her HGTV shows – he always goes 10% over budget and everyone gets upset – they should know by now it is a pretty consistent 10% so why haven’t they dealt with that expectation ?).
“Evaluating an array of options before letting intuition reign is a trick for the wicked world.”
Flies in contrast with the more usual:
“This time will probably be like the last time, so extensive narrow experience works. Generating new ideas or facing novel problems with high uncertainty is nothing like that.”
Analogies matter. And I’m glad I read that in this chapter as I have an affinity for making connections to education to a variety of weird and wonderful ideas (not just “how this will help in the real world”)
And this look at Kepler trying to figure out the orbit of Mars rekindled a wonder of mine when our “cookbook” science experiments went wrong (once even with the teacher directly supervising myself and my lab partner)
“Faced with an unexpected finding, rather than assuming the current theory is correct and that an observation must be off, the unexpected became an opportunity to venture somewhere new—and analogies served as the wilderness guide.”
Chapter 6: the trouble with too much grit
(I love this title because during class reviews just a day prior to me starting this chapter, a common theme of my teachers were worries around grit – persistence – perseverance – rigor – etc so my ears are metaphorically open)
“found that college graduates in England and Wales were consistently more likely to leap entirely out of their career fields than their later-specializing Scottish peers. And despite starting out behind in income because they had fewer specific skills, the Scots quickly caught up. Their counterparts in England and Wales were more often switching fields after college and after beginning a career even though they had more disincentive to switch”
Might help rationalize why I was a double major in university (and enough credits for a double minor) as I didn’t like to specialize even though I thought I ought to….
Forget about “work experience” in secondary – try “sampling experience” and explore more, specialize less!
“Switchers are winners” – and this can include teachers switching schools (ties in with Andy Hargreaves studies too)
Chapter 7: Flirting with your possible selves
“a community that valued inclusiveness should answer “yes” to the question, ‘When they look at us, can they find themselves?’”
“At the first ever Girl Scout training event Hesselbein attended, she heard another new troop leader complain that she was getting nothing from the session. Hesselbein mentioned it to a dress-factory worker who was also volunteering, and the woman told her, “You have to carry a big basket to bring something home.” She repeats that phrase today, to mean that a mind kept wide open will take something from every new experience.”
Interesting perspective on reflection and projection – for instance people looking a decade in advance would pay over $100 to see a band they currently enjoyed. But would pay less than $80 to see a band that was their favourite ten years ago.
How does this:
“At first, all career changers fell prey to the cult of the head start and figured it couldn’t possibly make sense to dispense with their long-term plans in favor of rapidly evolving short-term experiments. Sometimes they tried to talk themselves out of it. Their confidants advised them not to do anything rash; don’t change now, they said, just keep the new interest or talent as a hobby. But the more they dabbled, the more certain they were that it was time for a change. A new work identity did not manifest overnight, but began with trying something temporary,”
Connect with the number of teachers who leave the profession in their first five years?
Chapter 8 – The Outsider Advantage
“Alph Bingham’s critics were aware that clever outsiders and dilettantes had made technical breakthroughs in the past, but they assumed it was purely that, an artifact of the past that would not translate into the era of hyperspecialization”
“Pedro Domingos, a computer science professor and machine learning researcher, told me. “Knowledge is a double-edged sword. It allows you to do some things, but it also makes you blind to other things that you could do.”
“Undiscovered public knowledge” “Swanson wanted to show that areas of specialist literature that never normally overlapped were rife with hidden interdisciplinary treasures waiting to be connected.”
Why you shouldn’t stay in one place too long…? “Sometimes, the home field can be so constrained that a curious outsider is truly the only one who can see the solution.”
“The more information specialists create, the more opportunity exists for curious dilettantes to contribute by merging strands of widely available but disparate information—undiscovered public knowledge, as Don Swanson called it.”
Chapter 9: lateral thinking with withered technology
Fabulous brief history on how Nintendo leveraged lateral thinking on its way from making playing cards to producing the GameBoy….
Though it was a tough fight to keep leveraging the use of “old technology in new ways”….
“There is, to be sure, no comprehensive theory of creativity. But there is a well-documented tendency people have to consider only familiar uses for objects, an instinct known as functional fixedness. The most famous example is the “candle problem,” in which participants are given a candle, a box of tacks, and a book of matches and told to attach the candle to the wall such that wax doesn’t drip on the table below. Solvers try to melt the candle to the wall or tack it up somehow, neither of which work. When the problem is presented with the tacks outside of their box, solvers are more likely to view the empty box as a potential candle holder, and to solve the problem by tacking it to the wall and placing the candle inside. For Yokoi, the tacks were always outside the box.”
“As the company grew, he worried that young engineers would be too concerned about looking stupid to share ideas for novel uses of old technology, so he began intentionally blurting out crazy ideas at meetings to set the tone. “Once a young person starts saying things like, ‘Well, it’s not really my place to say . . .’ then it’s all over,” he said.”
“Specialization is obvious: keep going straight. Breadth is trickier to grow.”
Hmmmm…the comics code authority: “The comic book industry afforded a well-defined era of creative explosion. From the mid-1950s to 1970, comic creators agreed to self-censor after psychiatrist Fredric Wertham convinced Congress that comics were causing children to become deviants. (Wertham manipulated or fabricated aspects of his research.)”
“Toward the end of their book Serial Innovators, Abbie Griffin and her coauthors depart from stoically sharing their data and observations and offer advice to human resources managers. They are concerned that HR policies at mature companies have such well-defined, specialized slots for employees that potential serial innovators will look like “round pegs to the square holes” and get screened out. Their breadth of interests do not neatly fit a rubric. They are “π-shaped people” who dive in and out of multiple specialties. “Look for wide-ranging interests,” they advised. “Look for multiple hobbies and avocations. . . . When the candidate describes his or her work, does he or she tend to focus on the boundaries and the interfaces with other systems?” One serial innovator described his network of enterprise as “a bunch of bobbers hanging in the water that have little thoughts attached to them.” Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda painted the same idea elegantly: “I have a lot of apps open in my brain right now.”
Hmmmmmm. “how to identify potential innovators. “We think a lot of them might be frustrated by school,” he said, “because by nature they’re very broad.”
Chapter 10: Fooled by expertise
Forecasters are notoriously wrong in predictions – both short and long term views…..yet:
“Many experts never admitted systematic flaws in their judgment, even in the face of their results”
Victories are always full wins and defeats are “near misses” or bad luck….
“the narrow-view hedgehogs, who “know one big thing,” and the integrator foxes, who “know many little things””
….. “tried on ideas like Instagram filters until it was hard to tell which he actually believed.”
….. “volunteers drawn from the general public beat experienced intelligence analysts with access to classified data “by margins that remain classified,””
“Researchers in Canada and the United States began a 2017 study by asking a politically diverse and well-educated group of adults to read arguments confirming their beliefs about controversial issues. When participants were then given a chance to get paid if they read contrary arguments, two-thirds decided they would rather not even look at the counterarguments, never mind seriously entertain them. The aversion to contrary ideas is not a simple artifact of stupidity or ignorance.”
Chapter 11: learning to drop your familiar tools
Carter Racing Case Study. Very interesting….
Do you have all the right information that you need to be looking at….or just the data you want to be looking for….
Wonder; “Is this the data that we want to make the decision we need to make?”
“Karl Wallenda, the world-famous high-wire performer, who fell 120 feet to his death when he teetered and grabbed first at his balance pole rather than the wire beneath him. He momentarily lost the pole while falling, and grabbed it again in the air. “Dropping one’s tools is a proxy for unlearning, for adaptation, for flexibility,” Weick wrote.”
“Dropping familiar tools is particularly difficult for experienced professionals who rely on what Weick called overlearned behavior”
“When all you have is a volcanologist, I learned, every extinction looks like a volcano.”
Chapter 12: Deliberate Amateurs
“Saturday morning theoretical experiment”
Doing things that may be thought of as a “waste of resources during the week” but help with lateral thinking with withered technologies…..
“I do not dig deep—I graze shallow”
“compared the current system to medieval guilds. “The guild system in Europe arose in the Middle Ages as artisans and merchants sought to maintain and protect specialized skills and trades,” he wrote with a colleague. “Although such guilds often produced highly trained and specialized individuals who perfected their trade through prolonged apprenticeships, they also encouraged conservatism and stifled innovation.” Both training and professional incentives are aligning to accelerate specialization, creating intellectual archipelagos”
“The flu annually kills hundreds of thousands of people worldwide while humanity fights it with a cumbersomely produced vaccine from the 1940s. Casadevall’s mother is ninety-three, and on five medications that were available when he was a medical resident in the 1980s. “Two of them are older than I am,” he said, and two others are barely younger. “I cannot believe we can’t do better.”
“The interface between specialties, and between creators with disparate backgrounds, has been studied, and it is worth defending.”
“To recap: work that builds bridges between disparate pieces of knowledge is less likely to be funded, less likely to appear in famous journals, more likely to be ignored upon publication, and then more likely in the long run to be a smash hit in the library of human knowledge.”
“I always advise my people to read outside your field, everyday something. And most people say, ‘Well, I don’t have time to read outside my field.’ I say, ‘No, you do have time, it’s far more important.’ Your world becomes a bigger world, and maybe there’s a moment in which you make connections.”
“Casadevall’s overarching point is that the innovation ecosystem should intentionally preserve range and inefficiency. He is fighting an uphill battle.”
“Japanese biologist Yoshinori Ohsumi closed his Nobel lecture ominously: “Truly original discoveries in science are often triggered by unpredictable and unforeseen small findings. . . . Scientists are increasingly required to provide evidence of immediate and tangible applications of their work.”
Conclusion: Expanding your Range
“Creativity researcher Dean Keith Simonton has shown that the more work eminent creators produced, the more duds they churned out, and the higher their chances of a supernova success.”
“Sandwiched between King Lear and Macbeth, Shakespeare quilled Timon of Athens.”
“Compare yourself to yourself yesterday, not to younger people who aren’t you.”
Some great thinking and reflecting during this book. I’m gonna re-read chapters 4,6,11 and copy the conclusion so it’s always somewhere close to me!
Definitely a powerful book for reflection in order to better move forward!