Chunking and Effortful Study

I just read the most fascinating Scientific American article on The Expert Mind.

To sum up, psychologists have made a study of chess players to gain insight into natural talent vs. learned skills. They have dubbed chess players, “The Drosophila of Cognitive Science,” in reference to fruit flies and their many uses as test subjects. One of the more exciting points for me was a reference to ‘chunking’ as a means by which masters can juggle large amounts of data (what would normally overwhelm a novice) without breaking the rule of “The Magical Number 7, Plus or Minus 2.” (see also this Wikipedia entry.) [This is sort of the basis for our phone numbers being the length they are – there is a finite working limit to our memory, and to sort of work around it we ‘chunk’ things into clumps of 7 (plus or minus 2). I’d go on, but this article does a superior job explaining]

Perhaps one of the reasons this struck a chord with me is that I know I use it all the time to perform complex calculations and to retain results in my head. I even use it for bizarre purposes like remembering somebody’s address. Instead of remembering a random number, I relate it to a chunk that’s already stored somewhere in there *points to his head*. It’s a much more relational way to operate that I find really works for me. And the cool thing to discover was that it works for chess masters as well. So, as the article conveys, when they play chess blindfolded they don’t need to memorize the entire board, but just remember 7 or 8 ‘chunks’ of info that pertain to familiar layouts. I’m sure I’m not doing it justice, but it is a lot of fun to think about!

The other piece of interest to me as a math teacher was the idea that “effortful study” seems to far outweigh natural talent. I’ve long been approaching my job from the opposite standpoint (in some ways it is easier, relieving me of obligation), but this indicates that what is really necessary is, in the words of Jaime Escalante, “ganas,” desire. If you work at it, you can eventually get it. The tough part for students everywhere is that the burden now lays with them – no more cop-outs of, ‘I just don’t do math.’

Now the trick is to develop success in our students. As the article points out:

“success builds on success, because each accomplishment can strengthen a child’s motivation. A 1999 study of professional soccer players from several countries showed that they were much more likely than the general population to have been born at a time of year that would have dictated their enrollment in youth soccer leagues at ages older than the average. In their early years, these children would have enjoyed a substantial advantage in size and strength when playing soccer with their teammates. Because the larger, more agile children would get more opportunities to handle the ball, they would score more often, and their success at the game would motivate them to become even better.” – (Sci Am, The Expert Mind)

Additionally, we must get students to want to learn. If they’re hating it, hard work won’t even do the trick – because their heart and mind won’t really be in it. Again, that desire is necessary. So how do we encourage that???

Here’s one interesting approach:

“The preponderance of psychological evidence indicates that experts are made, not born. What is more, the demonstrated ability to turn a child q uickly 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.” – (Sci Am, The Expert Mind)

But now we’re in danger of running far afield, as the topic of what motivates children (and what no longer motivates them) gets deep in the mire of what’s degenerating in society today.

One idea to wrap things up:

“experts-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.” – (Sci Am, The Expert Mind)

The point is to constantly challenge yourself to grow in skill and knowledge, to never be satisfied with where you’re at – and to inspect the work of the masters for tips and tricks to see just how it is they do what they do. I’d like to think I’ve been attempting to do this on a regular basis – but I now intend to more consciously strive to keep this in mind, in whatever I do. (Maybe I should even apply it to BF2, eh?) 🙂


8 Responses to “Chunking and Effortful Study”

  1. Stephen Says:

    Before I actually get to the pieces you link, here (the URL above) is my first chunking encounter and one of my earliest recollections of reading Gladwell with glee.

  2. repercussio Says:

    Thanks for pointing this article out–really cool stuff. I had a professor in grad school who focused on expert skills in music performance. One of the seminars I had with her focused on “serial order mechanisms”–specifically, speech, typing, and music. One of the amazing points was the consistency of error types that we make, and what it tells us about brain function. We looked at some neural network model papers (didn’t understand the math) that explore potential how computers can learn to mimic certain functions. Ties into your chunking point–humans make lousy computers–but amazing humans (music perception, facial recognition, etc.) 🙂

  3. Related to this article – and I know you, Pete, would have the background to help me out – how exactly ought I cite the passages I quoted??? It’s been many years, so I did make an attempt, but I’m sure it’s not stylistically corrrect. 🙂

  4. repercussio Says:

    Looks good to me–I’d just add a page no. Formats all depend on the field of study–several have their own.

  5. I read the same article too. Nice writings !

    It’s nice to know that experts are made, not born. 🙂

    I would also like to add that the article states that it generally takes a decade of effortful study to be an expert in any field.

    Bullshit. I can be an expert in first-person-shooting games in a matter of minutes. Hehheheh.

  6. Nicevil, you sound like some of my students. Wish I had that talent for FPSs. Alas, my reflexes are those of a slug in winter.

  7. […] effortful study, freakonomics, learning |   I’ve written before about this topic, both here and here, but I thought this article from Freakonomics relates well and shows that the process of […]

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