Category Archives: education

Think freakier

The authors of Freakonomics have now written Think like a Freak. Their stimulating perspective is an invitation to think in even more original ways.

Steven Levitt is an economist at the University of Chicago who became famous for his book Freakonomics, in which he applies logic and mathematics in original ways to both longstanding and novel problems and issues. The book’s co-author, Stephen Dubner, is a writer who can turn dry statistics into page-turning adventures.

Freakonomics

One controversial topic covered in Freakonomics was the cause of the decline in the US crime rate in the 1990s. The authors presented the idea that the legalisation of abortion nationwide in the early 1970s led to a significant decline in the birth of children in disadvantaged circumstances, and as a result the crime rate went down 15 to 20 years later. They cite statistics and references to back up this hypothesis. Freakonomics looked also at why teachers cheat, the economics of drug dealing, and fashions in naming children, among other topics. Levitt and Dubner later extended their popular treatments of unorthodox perspectives in SuperFreakonomics. As well, the authors run a blog and a radio programme.

Steven Levitt
Steven Levitt

Because of the huge sales of Freakonomics, it is not surprising that Levitt’s research findings have come under considerable scrutiny, with some data and findings contested. As well, it is debateable whether the topics covered should be considered part of the economics discipline.

Most recently, Levitt and Dubner have written Think like a Freak, aiming to explain their approach by using engaging examples to motivate general comments. This book is my focus here. Learning to think in unorthodox ways can be worthwhile even if the results are sometimes questionable.

Think-like-a-freak

In Think like a Freak, the authors tell, for example, of Takeru Kobayashi (nicknamed Kobi), a slightly built Japanese man who became involved in competitions to eat as much as possible in a short time. After some initial successes, he entered the biggest event in the field, Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest in Coney Island, New York. The annual contest involved eating as many hotdogs as possible in 12 minutes. Other competitors followed the then conventional wisdom, which was to train by eating as much as possible. Kobi, though, decided to train in a different way: he experimented with different approaches, for example eating the sausage separately from the bun and soaking the bun in water so it could be swallowed more quickly. Going into the competition, Kobi astounded the field by winning and by smashing the record, eating nearly twice as many hotdogs as the previous highest number.

takeru_kobayashi_2006_07_04
Takeru Kobayashi, 2006

From this example, Levitt and Dubner highlight a few key points. Kobi didn’t just accept the conventional approaches: he tried out new approaches, tested them and practised them. Another thing was that Kobi focused on how he ate, namely applying the methods he had developed as well as possible rather than comparing his performance to previous efforts by others. In this way he was not held back by the expectation that records can only broken incrementally. Finally, Kobi developed a mental technique, including his focus on process, that allowed him to enjoy the process of gorging himself, despite the pain and discomfort involved.

Levitt and Dubner pursue this path of presenting simple ideas that, when applied in unorthodox ways or to unexpected topics, lead to potential breakthroughs. One chapter is “Think like a child.” Of course they don’t mean always think like a child, but in some circumstances children can cut through conventional ways of seeing the world, conventional for adults that is. A magician friend of the authors told them he was hardly ever caught out by an adult, but quite a few children could see through his tricks, for a variety of reasons: they were less focused and hence harder to distract, they were more attentive to details adults wouldn’t notice, and they were shorter and could see things that adults couldn’t because the tricks were designed to be seen from above.

Child-think

Freakier

Levitt and Dubner describe meeting with David Cameron just before he became Britain’s Prime Minister. They pointed out some ways to make the National Health Service more efficient by introducing charges for service, a perspective that comes naturally to an economist. But Cameron switched off: the NHS was not to be tinkered with.

Levitt and Dubner here subscribe to conventional rationality of planning by elites, those who supposedly know best. But there is more to decision-making than rationality. Part of the picture is involving citizens in the decisions that affect them, thereby enabling far better uptake of policies. Cameron instinctively knew he could not implement major NHS reforms, even if he wanted to, without winning over the population. (Incidentally, the US fee-based health system is hardly a model of rationality.)

Levitt and Dubner advocate going to the roots of problems, not just treating symptoms. They tell the now-familiar story of how Barry Marshall and Robin Warren discovered that ulcers are caused not by stress and spicy foods but by a bacterium that can be eliminated by antibiotics. They had to fight the medical establishment for recognition. Marshall and Warren, now Nobel Prize winners, had addressed the cause of ulcers. So far, so good.

Then there is crime, a favourite topic for Levitt and Dubner. In reprising their studies of abortion and crime, they point out that some measures, such as more capital punishment and tighter gun laws, do not reduce the crime rate. They instead prefer to focus on something deeper, children’s upbringing.

There are other ways to look at crime not examined by Levitt and Dubner. One is to point out that nearly all crime appearing in US police statistics is by people at the bottom of the social pyramid. Those who are poor, with less education and few opportunities, are far more likely to commit the sorts of crime that result in arrests and imprisonment. However, available evidence suggests that the biggest criminals are at the top of the social hierarchy, including white-collar crimes by individuals and major crimes by corporations and governments. Pharmaceutical companies, for example, have been fined billions of dollars for crimes leading to the deaths of tens of thousands of people, but few executives are ever called to account. So crime statistics should be treated as an artefact of a class-based approach to criminality: most of the big boys (and girls) can cheat and steal with impunity, while those further down the hierarchy are subject to far greater scrutiny and punishment.

The sociologist Randall Collins wrote an insightful chapter presenting an unfamiliar perspective on crime. He argues that all societies need to define some activities as deviant, and those considered most deviant are criminalised. So crime rates reflect deeper processes of social stratification and exclusion. In this case, thinking like a freak may not get you as far as reading some sociology.

Collins-Sociological Insight

Levitt and Dubner write about a study by Jörg Spenkuch of German Protestants and Catholics that found people living in Protestant areas earned a little more money on average than people living in Catholic areas, although their hourly wages were the same. One factor was that those in Protestant areas worked longer hours. Is the lesson from this, as suggested by Levitt and Dubner, that kids should be encouraged to be more hard-working like Protestants? An alternative lesson is that by working fewer hours, Catholics are increasing their well-being: it is well documented that higher incomes have a minimal impact on happiness compared to spending time with family and friends.

Persuading people

Levitt and Dubner include a useful chapter on how to persuade people who don’t want to be persuaded. They make some useful recommendations. One is to give credit to the other side’s strong points, because an opponent is unlikely to engage in debate with an obviously biased perspective. In studying numerous scientific controversies over the years, my observation is that it is rare for a partisan to give a fair summary of the opponent’s argument. In the Australian vaccination debate, each side presents its strong points and criticises the other side’s weak points. There’s very little persuasion going on.

Another recommendation made by Levitt and Dubner is not to insult the opponents, for example by calling them ignorant, foolish, dupes or crazies. Going by past behaviour, many vaccination partisans won’t be following this advice.

The authors use climate change as an example, pondering the difference between the scientific consensus about the reality of human-induced global warming and the considerable scepticism among the US public. However, they omit one important factor: in the US, there is a powerful fossil-fuel lobby that does everything it can to create doubt about climate science. In many other countries, climate sceptics have low public credibility. So perhaps Levitt and Dubner could make another recommendation: have on your side a powerful and wealthy group that intervenes in the debate.

Stephen Dubner
Stephen Dubner

Levitt and Dubner use a different example to good effect: driverless cars. These are getting better technologically, but to argue for them, they say it is wise to acknowledge possible dangers, for example that a driverless car could plough into a preschool, killing lots of kids. They provide the figures to show that dramatic events, reported in the media, give an unrealistic picture of technological dangers. Cars (with drivers) are the big killer of kids in rich countries, and if driverless cars reduced the road toll even a little, many more kids would be alive and uninjured.

However, there is another way to look at the issue of driverless cars, which is to ask by so many billions of dollars are being devoted to a slight improvement in a transport system that is inherently unsafe, as well as being damaging to the environment. For decades, critics of the car have been advocating for a range of alternatives: walking, cycling, public transport, and design of cities to make walking and cycling safe and attractive. Recognising such alternatives does not require thinking like a freak, but rather being open to possibilities that clash with the powerful road and auto lobby in the US. Thinking about transport like a freak in Copenhagen, where commuting by bicycle is commonplace, would be different than thinking like a freak in Los Angeles.

The final chapter of Think like a Freak is titled “The upside of quitting.” They say that quitting has an unfortunately bad reputation, often being associated with failure. They note that quitting a project, a job or a relationship can have many advantages, but quitting often is not contemplated because of sunk costs and lack of consideration of opportunity costs.

yup-i-freakin-quit

They describe tech companies that try out lots of ideas with the aim of testing them promptly and, if they don’t measure up, quitting without investing a lot of money. It makes sense to spend some time and effort, but no more than necessary, determining whether something is a bad idea.

Levitt and Dubner even set up an online operation that offers to flip a coin for people to make decisions, for example whether to leave a job or a relationship. This has attracted tens of thousands of participants who are asked to report on the outcome of the process. Despite some intriguing outcomes, I have reservations. There is research showing that people systematically misjudge what made them happy in the past and what will make them happy in the future. Indeed, there are several illusions involved in people’s explanations for their current state of mind. So while I sympathise with Levitt and Dubner’s encouragement to see the positives involved in quitting and failure, actually measuring the consequences of choices can be challenging.

Think like a Freak is engaging and informative. It is written as a set of stories, and the authors are well aware that story-telling is a powerful technique for getting a message across. The book concludes with some modest comments.

All we’ve done is encourage you to think a bit differently, a bit harder, a bit more freely. Now it’s your turn! We of course hope you enjoyed this book. But our greatest satisfaction would be if it helps you, even in some small measure, to go out and right some wrong, to ease some burden, or even — if this is your thing — to eat more hot dogs. (p. 211)

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, Think like a freak: how to think smarter about almost everything (Penguin, 2015)

Marking blind

When marking an essay, it can be better not to know who wrote it.

As a university teacher, one of my regular tasks is to mark assignments, and I want to be as fair as possible to the students. One method I use is to “mark blind,” namely without knowing the name of the student whose work I’m marking.

anonymous student

Most teachers try to be fair and say that knowing the identity of the student makes no difference to them. However, there’s plenty of research about in-group favouritism, where the in-group can be based on family, religion, age, ethnicity or viewpoints, among other possibilities. Teachers are likely to be affected by all sorts of unconscious bias, including expectations about how good a student is.

Students create impressions on their teachers. Some students are more articulate, engaging, humorous or astute in their comments. Then there are the effects of appearance, dress and demeanour. Maybe a student really tries hard, creating a favourable impression of diligence.

Wine tasters evaluate wines without knowing their origin. Vintages can vary considerably from year to year, so it’s better not to be influenced by previous perceptions. Similarly, the quality of a student’s work can vary from class to class and from assignment to assignment, and teacher expectations can affect evaluations.

Even a student’s name can influence perceptions. Male or female? Ethnic? Pretentious-sounding or ordinary? Stereotypes abound and can influence attitudes. If you know a student well, in-group favouritism is a risk; if not, then stereotype bias is a risk. When marking and knowing the student’s name, it’s therefore likely that some mental image of the student will be present, and it’s likely this has an effect on the marker.

A-plus

My way of limiting this bias is to mark assignments without knowing the student’s name. I ask students to list only their student number on the assignment, not their name.

f-minus

I find this changes my attitude while marking. My focus becomes to comment on the work done, with less concern about the relationship of the comments or mark to the student. I don’t worry about a student who comes across well in class doing poorly or about a seemingly lackadaisical student doing well. After finishing marking all the assignments, I go online to recombine student numbers with names, and send my comments to the students.

One good aspect of marking blind is that I can say honestly to students that my mark is on their work, not on them personally. They can be more confident that if they receive a good mark, it is a reflection of good work and likewise that if they receive a poor mark, it is not about who they are.

If only more essays

Practicalities

In recent years, I have had my students submit their work electronically, either directly to me by email or through an online forum. Usually this means I can see their names as well as their student numbers – but only temporarily. I put the submitted files into a folder, with each file having as its name the student’s number. By the time there are a few files in the folder, I have forgotten which one is which.

Sometimes, when marking an assignment, I recognise the student. Perhaps it’s because we had talked about it beforehand, or the student gives some revealing personal detail, for example being from Finland when there’s only one Finnish student in the class. More commonly, though, it’s because the student includes their name somewhere in the assignment.

Whatever the reason, I put that assignment at the bottom of the pile and turn to another one. Usually after marking ten or so assignments, I’m on automatic pilot in terms of applying the assessment criteria, and knowing the student’s name is less important.

Sometimes, when marking an assignment, I think I know which student did it, but if I’m not absolutely sure, it helps me switch focus from who did the work to the quality of the work. I want the mark to be appropriate whoever did the work.

If I want to give feedback specifically for a student, supplementary to my comments on the student’s assignment, I can add this after reconnecting student names to assignments.

grading-2a

The pitfalls of familiarity

There’s an inherent tension in any system in which teachers mark their own students’ work. Teachers in such circumstances have two conflicting roles. One is to provide guidance, support and feedback to assist learning. The other is to provide an assessment of the student’s performance.

The trouble is that the assessment role can inhibit the support role. If students are worried about what mark they are going to get, they may be cautious about exposing their ignorance, thereby reducing opportunities for useful feedback. They may also try to curry favour with their teacher.

The way around this is to separate teaching and assessment roles. This occurs with research students in the Australian and British systems. The supervisor supports the student to produce a satisfactory thesis. Then the thesis is assessed by independent examiners. At the University of Wollongong, there are strict rules to ensure independence. At the PhD level, for example, examiners cannot have worked at the university in the past five years, nor have collaborated with any supervisor or the student, among other restrictions.

In years gone by, supervisors were examiners for their own students’ honours theses, but this was open to abuse, with some supervisors becoming advocates for their favoured students while some unfortunate students, who had clashed with their supervisors, were treated harshly. The rules were changed to prevent supervisors being examiners, though in some parts of the university there was resistance, with supervisors insisting that only they had the expertise to judge their students’ work.

One year, I made an arrangement with a colleague at another university: he would mark the final assignments from my undergraduate class and I’d do the same for him. This enabled me to be a support person for my students, giving them feedback on drafts before marking by my colleague. I thought the system was worthwhile, but it seems that few academics are receptive to this sort of exchange. My colleague never supplied me with the essays from his class. My guess is that he did not feel comfortable relinquishing his control over marks for his students. If, instead of needing to mark the work of 90 students in a semester, the figure was closer to 40, I might try again to arrange an exchange with a colleague or with one of the other tutors in my classes.

grading-2b

Other biases

Blind marking can limit biases due to knowing who did the work, but it doesn’t eliminate other sorts of biases. One of the most common is ideological: if students say things you agree with, they are more likely to create a favourable impression than if they challenge your beliefs. If you’re teaching on topics where there are strong differences in opinion, for example addressing abortion or biotechnology, being fair can be difficult.

There’s another problem too. Students are very sensitive to the views of their teachers, and many students will say what they think their teachers want to hear. This is probably more damaging and insidious than teacher bias itself.

Many years ago, I taught a course on environmental politics and used case studies as a basis for understanding theory. Many of the students were doing an environmental science degree, and most of the students thought of themselves as environmentally conscious, and it was hard to get them to think critically about their own beliefs. When nuclear power was the case study, nearly all students were opposed to it, and few students had the confidence to present pro-nuclear arguments. Furthermore, the students knew I was an opponent of nuclear power.

Then I introduced fluoridation as a case study. Some students asked me during class, “What do you think, Brian?” I’d respond that I was studying the controversy as a social scientist and didn’t have a strong personal opinion. This answer frustrated them: they obviously wanted to know my view so they would know better what to write in their assignments.

Furthermore, there was no standard environmental view about fluoridation, and different class members had different views on fluoridation, leading to more stimulating discussions than on other topics. The students had to think for themselves rather than regurgitate a standard line or say what they thought I wanted to hear.

On just one occasion, I used one of my books as a text. I didn’t like this, because I felt students were inhibited. Personally, I would have liked to hear their criticisms of my ideas, but few students have the confidence to question their teacher’s well-formed views. Basing teaching on your own research means you have greater knowledge, but does it help students learn more effectively?

Zits.20091222-grades

Conclusion

Fairness is just one consideration when marking. Ultimately, the goal is helping students to learn and to become independent, critical, ethical, self-motivated learners. How to do this is a continual challenge for which there is no single answer. I recommend trying blind marking to see what it’s like and to see how students respond.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Thanks to Anne Melano and Caroline Colton for useful comments.

Subject outlines illustrating how students can be instructed to submit blinded assignments.
CST228, 2015: see pages 11 and 15
BCM390, 2015: see page 17

See also: Marking essays: making it easier and more fun

Learning: how to do it better

We continue to learn our entire lives. Research shows ways to do it better, but this means changing our habits.

keep-calm-and-never-stop-learning-5

Learning — we do it all the time, when reading messages, hearing the news, starting a new job, and in a host of other circumstances. Then there is formal learning, in classrooms and when studying for assignments.

Most people learn how to learn when they are young, and continue with the same methods for most of their life. What if there are better ways to go about it?

Benedict Carey is a long-time science writer, and since 2004 has written for the New York Times. Gradually, he became interested in research on how people learn, and set out on a quest, contacting leading researchers on learning. He was surprised to find that, according to the latest research, what he had done during high school, long sessions of concentrated attention on study topics, was really not all that effective. In his book How We Learn (Random House, 2014), Carey provides an accessible guide to key practical findings from learning research.

How-we-learn

Carey makes his account engaging by telling stories about pioneering researchers who developed ideas taken up later. He then spells out the implications for learners, whether they are in schools, universities, jobs or everyday life.

The spacing effect

Which is better: studying for two hours in one session, or for two sessions of one hour each on two different days? The answer is clear: two separate sessions are better, whether you want to learn facts or skills. This shouldn’t be news. In athletics, where learning techniques make the difference between winning and losing, training is normally spaced out. Runners do not postpone training until the day before the race.

Yet generations of students have crammed for exams and other assignments. As an undergraduate, I stayed up all night on several occasions to write essays. It was the only time in my life that I drank coffee! The trouble with cramming is that nearly everything learned is quickly forgotten. Spacing out study is more efficient: you can learn more in less time and retain it longer.

stangor-fig08_012

But what’s the best sort of spacing? If you have two weeks to learn the names of the bones in the body, and want to spend a total of two hours studying, is it better to use two sessions of an hour, twelve sessions of 10 minutes, or some other breakdown? And how should the study sessions be spaced? Should one be just before a test? Or, if long-term retention is the goal, what’s the best option? Carey examines what is known about spacing. In general, more spacing is better, but there is still much to be discovered about the optimum spacing for learning different sorts of material.

The testing effect

If you don’t know anything about a topic – for example, Chinese history in the 1700s – then surely the best way to learn about it is to start studying. Actually, though, you’ll learn more efficiently if you take a test on the material before you start, even though you just guess at the answers. Somehow this primes the mind to pay more attention when you do start studying. This is a really strange research finding.

Educationists commonly talk about two types of assessment. Summative assessment measures learning whereas formative assessment is designed to improve learning. Actually, though, all assessment is formative to some degree: it is a method of learning.

Roediger+&+Karpicke+(2006)+Graph+of+Testing+Effect

Formal assessment is designed by teachers. But there’s another type of testing: self-testing. When you’re studying, you can test yourself regularly. Or you can try to explain the topic to a friend. Testing yourself can overcome the fluency illusion, in which you have the incorrect belief that you know something because it seems familiar. Carey writes:

These apparently simple attempts to communicate what you’ve learned, to yourself or others, are not merely a form of self-testing, in the conventional sense, but studying – the high-octane kind, 20 to 30 percent more powerful than if you continued sitting on your butt, staring at that outline. Better yet, those exercises will dispel the fluency illusion. They’ll expose what you don’t know, where you’re confused, what you’ve forgotten – and fast. (p. 103)

Incubation

Many students think they’re learning only when they’re studying. Therefore, it doesn’t matter when they study, even if it’s at the last moment. It’s just necessary to put in enough hours. The spacing effect shows that something can happen in between study sessions: the unconscious mind engages with the material, and you don’t even notice it happening. There’s another aspect to this process, called the incubation or percolation effect.

Here’s the trick. When studying a topic intensely, it’s actually better to interrupt the process before finishing, and leave the mind to chew away at it before the next session. In terms of writing, this means not finishing an essay, but instead leaving it incomplete for the time being.

incubation-effect

When a task isn’t complete, the mind won’t let it alone, so in the long run you learn more by being interrupted at odd times while pursuing a task. Carey:

… we should start work on large projects as soon as possible and stop when we get stuck, with the confidence that we are initiating percolation, not quitting. My tendency as a student was always to procrastinate on big research papers and take care of the smaller stuff first. Do the easy reading. Clean the kitchen. Check some things off the to-do list. Then, once I finally sat down to face the big beast, I’d push myself frantically toward the finish line and despair if I didn’t make it.
Wrong.
Quitting before I’m ahead doesn’t put the project to sleep; it keeps it awake. (p. 147)

The incubation effect is used by great creators who bore away at a problem for weeks or months and then take a break – and this is often when the best ideas pop up. The challenge is to trust your own mind and treat interruptions to significant tasks as opportunities rather than sources of worry.

Interleaving

The usual way of learning is to concentrate on a particular task until it is mastered, and then go on to the next task. It sounds logical, but actually there’s a more productive technique, which is to mix up the tasks.

Carey describes the technique of interleaving. Here’s a typical research protocol. One group of students learned artistic styles by looking first at six paintings by one artist, say Braque, and then six by another, say Mylrea, and so on through twelve artists. A different group of students saw exactly the same paintings for the same length of time, but mixed up in a random sequence. At the end, students in each group were shown paintings they had not seen before and asked to name the artist. Which group did better? It was the ones who saw the paintings in a random order.

This outcome has been reproduced in numerous studies involving discrimination. During the learning phase, students exposed to interleaving don’t feel like they are learning, but actually they improve faster.

interleaved-blocked

“That may be the most astounding thing about this technique,” said John Dunlosky, a psychologist at Kent State University, who has shown that interleaving accelerates our ability to distinguish between bird species. “People don’t believe it, even after you show them they’ve done better.”
This much is clear: The mixing of items, skills, or concepts during practice, over the longer term, seems to help us not only see the distinctions between them but also to achieve a clearer grasp of each one individually. The hardest part is abandoning our primal faith in repetition. (p. 164)

Athletic coaches long ago figured out that exercising a particular muscle too much at a time is not productive, so they mix up training, switching between different muscle groups. The studies of learning artistic styles show that mixing things up is a more general learning strategy, with applications in many areas.

Other factors

Carey also discuses other factors that enable faster and longer-lasting learning. These include perceptual learning, which happens without having to think about it, and the role of different sleep cycles in consolidating learning.

Sleep-Helps-to-Form-Memories
Sleep helps to form memories.

It is fascinating that there are ways to speed up learning in a wide range of contexts, for example pilots comprehending the implications of different instrument panels or language students learning Mandarin.

It is tempting to think that it would be possible to take advantage of several of the techniques described by Carey and quickly become a much more efficient learner. If you are in the hands of one of the researchers or skilled practitioners using one of the techniques, such as interleaving or perceptual learning, then you have an advantage. But to take the initiative to adopt these techniques on your own is another matter.

One of the key considerations is habit — and many people’s learning habits are deeply entrenched. It can be quite challenging to replace one habit with another, though there is good research on how to do this.

To better understand the challenges of adopting some of the techniques presented by Carey, here I’ll discuss how they relate to the high-output writing programme I’ve been using for several years.

Writing

Robert Boice, a psychologist and educational researcher, addressed the problem of low research productivity. Many of his important studies date from the 1980s.

Robert-Boice
Robert Boice

He observed newly appointed academics and noticed that most of them struggled in the demands of the job, but a few were highly productive in research and furthermore were less stressed than their colleagues. Boice thought the techniques used by these productive new academics might be taught to others, and he showed how this could be done.

Advice for new faculty members

Boice’s approach was elaborated by Tara Gray and turned into a twelve-step programme. The core of the approach is doing some writing every day or nearly every day, but not too much. Boice advocated stopping while still fresh, in order to have energy and enthusiasm to continue the next day. A central theme in Boice’s approach is moderation, to overcome the syndrome of procrastination and bingeing.

Gray says to start writing from the very beginning of a research project. For example, in doing a PhD, you should start writing the first day, rather than spending a couple of years first reading and collecting data. The slogan here is “write before you’re ready.”

P&F2e_OSFC

How does the Boice-Gray approach to writing measure up in relation to the techniques described by Carey that enhance learning? First is the spacing effect: it’s more productive to space out learning sessions. That is actually the foundation of the writing programme: it is designed to overcome the usual approach of procrastination and bingeing.

Second is the testing effect: it is productive to use testing as a form of studying. In the writing programme, daily writing is done without looking at texts or stopping to look up references. You might have a few dot-point notes, but otherwise everything has to come from your head. In effect, it is a type of testing of your memory of what you want to say. For example, if you’ve read some articles the previous day, you write about them without consulting them: it’s a test, and a powerful learning tool.

Third is incubation. This is central to the writing programme. In between writing sessions, the unconscious mind is going over what to say next. In one of Boice’s studies, he looked at the number of creative ideas produced by academics in three conditions: no writing, normal writing (bingeing) and daily writing. No writing was worst for generating new ideas, normal writing was twice as good and daily writing was five times as good. The writing programme might be seen as turning the incubation process into a routine.

Another facet of incubation is that you learn more when you interrupt your study before finishing. This happens every day in the Boice-Gray programme, and can be enhanced by a simple technique. At the end of your daily writing session, finish in the middle of developing an idea, perhaps even in the middle of a paragraph or sentence. This incomplete expression of an idea serves to stimulate thinking, and often by the next day your unconscious mind has come up with a way to complete the thought.

Tara-Gray
Tara Gray

Fourth is interleaving: learning about a range of different topics at the same session. This is not usually part of the writing programme, but could be incorporated into it. Usually I write about the same topic from one day to the next, gradually writing the draft of an article or chapter. But sometimes I feel a bit stuck and switch to a different project and topic, coming back to the other one when I feel ready, which can be days, weeks or months later. No doubt interleaving can be used in other ways to improve writing productivity.

Fifth is mixing up learning contexts: you can consolidate your learning by studying in different surroundings and times of the day. The idea is to embed your learning in different environments. This is different from what’s usually recommended in the writing programme, which is to have a routine and stick with it. I think this difference points to an important factor not addressed by Carey: how to motivate continued effort at learning.

The practice of doing just a small amount of daily writing is designed to reduce the barriers to beginning a session. To add pressure, Boice asked academics to report to him weekly with a log of the minutes they had written each day and the number of words they had produced each day. This accountability process made a huge difference. Daily writing combined with reporting a weekly log to Boice improved productivity by a factor of nine compared to the usual procrastination-bingeing approach.

The technique of varying the learning contexts is worthwhile if your writing habit is well established. But few writers seem to have such a solid habit. Writing while travelling would seem like an ideal opportunity to vary contexts, but Gray reports that when travelling, away from the usual routine, writing at all is a challenge for her, and many others have told me the same.

Writing-while-travelling

Conclusion

The message here is that the techniques described by Carey are highly worthwhile and should be investigated by anyone for whom learning is important. However, a key consideration is how to turn a new learning approach into a habit. If you can do this, you’ve truly learned something worthwhile.

Benedict-Carey
Benedict Carey

Meanwhile, generations of students are carrying on in their usual approach, and so does most teaching. There is important research being done on learning, and Carey has pointed to some of the most practical findings. When these will affect schools and training programmes is another matter. Not soon, I suspect. So read How We Learn, pick one or two techniques relevant to your needs, and become a more efficient learner – and enjoy it too!

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Thanks to Don Eldridge for helpful comments.

Open access dilemmas

Open access publishing is coming, but the scene is complicated and up-and-coming academics face difficult decisions.

I-love-OA

Commercial publishers of academic journals seem to have a good thing going. Academics write the articles, but are not paid for them. Other academics serve as referees; they are not paid either. Editors manage the process; they might receive some support from their universities. After articles are published, academic libraries pay for them.

Academic institutions, most of them supported by governments, provide the money for writing, refereeing and editing articles, and then for libraries, serving academic readers, to buy back the published articles.

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So what do the commercial publishers do? They might provide some copyediting, but mainly they extract exorbitant profits from their monopoly position. This has become ever more inefficient with the rise of electronic publishing. Many journals do not print hard copies. Few individuals subscribe to major academic journals and receive printed copies. Online access is the standard option.

Meanwhile, anyone outside universities is disenfranchised. Buying a single article of a few pages might cost US$30 or more.

The inefficiencies, exploitation and absurdities of the academic journal market have led to the rise of the open access movement, with the goal of ensuring that all academic work is available to anyone at no cost. The push for open access (OA) is having an impact, but at the moment the whole area is increasingly complicated.

One model, called gold OA, involves the publisher making articles free online immediately on publication. However, commercial publishers want to make money, naturally enough, so they are adopting various methods. The most common is to require authors, or their institutions, to pay a fee for gold OA. This might be US$3000 or so. It’s a disincentive for anyone who does not have institutional support.

Another model, called green OA, involves authors putting the final pre-publication versions of their articles online, usually in an institutional repository. This gives access, but for those who want to obtain the publisher’s pdf version, access through a library is usually required.

The trouble with these models is that the large commercial publishers are still extracting super-profits due to their monopoly control. The reason is that the market for academic journals is not truly competitive.

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In principle, academic authors could choose to publish wherever they like. If journal A is slow and expensive, then go to journal B that is quick and provides free gold OA. The trouble is that journals have reputations, and academics are judged as much or more by where they publish as by the quality of their articles. You can write brilliant articles but if you publish them in low-status journals, your work will not be treated as seriously by fellow academics. Most of the new OA journals have not had sufficient time to develop reputations.

For an academic who is no longer seeking grants or promotions, there is no need to publish in journals that are high status or high impact: more important might be getting to receptive audiences who actually want to read the article. That might be a high-status journal in some cases and a lesser ranked outlet in others.

But such academics are the exception. Most, especially in early stages in their careers, need to worry about the impact of publications on their curriculum vitae: their most important audience is not those who actually read their articles but members of job, promotion and grant committees who read their applications. A few of these “readers” may occasionally read articles to assess their quality and importance, but many instead use the proxy measure of the status or impact of the journals in which articles are published.

This emphasis on the status of outlets is exacerbated by some organisational, disciplinary or national research evaluation schemes. The government scheme called Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) initially provided a rating of scholarly journals (A*, A, B, C and non-ranked), and universities were assessed based on outputs using these ratings. The system had the perverse effect of penalising publication in lower-rated journals. A scholar who published four articles in A* journals helped the university’s score more than one who published four articles in A* journals plus four more in C journals. Although the journal ratings were later withdrawn, they continue to play a post-death role within universities: academics going for promotion often identify the “former ERA rating” of the journals in which they have been published. Few bother to identify the OA status of the journals.

Academics who care about both access and advancement are thus caught in a cruel dilemma. They can choose to publish only in high-status journals, maximising their career prospects while usually supporting the big commercial publishers, or they can support newer free OA journals but possibly with a cost to their academic prestige. Are there other options? And what are the prospects for the future?

Research on OA

I obtained a taste of the developments and complexities in this area by reading a lengthy document titled Open Access Publishing: A Literature Review. It was written by Giancarlo F. Frosio for a British research centre with the acronym CREATe; he has since moved to Stanford Law School.

Open Access Publishing is far more than a literature review, being instead an impressive book-length discourse and state-of-the-art assessment of OA. It includes an historical treatment of the development of publishing and copyright, coverage of a range of theories concerning copyright and OA, and a detailed assessment of OA models for publishing and for organisational policies.

Giancarlo Frosio - Resident Fellow - Intermediary Liability
Giancarlo Frosio

The history of copyright is worth studying. While it once might have made sense to provide incentives for creative work, the duration of copyright has expanded seemingly without bounds. Five or ten years of copyright protection might encourage an author to be more productive, but few authors will work harder still because copyright is extended to 70 years after their death. Currently there is perpetual copyright on the instalment plan, with extensions made whenever Mickey Mouse is about to go out of copyright. This means that those who control copyrights are extracting money based on monopoly privilege. This makes even less sense for academic publications, because most scholars sign away their rights and receive no royalties for journal articles.

My impression, after reading Frosio’s review, is that the field of academic publishing is in a state of flux, buzzing with a bewildering set of options and challenges. The central driving force in this complexity is the attempt by commercial publishers to maintain a central role in the publication process despite the fact that they serve little practical purpose, given the existence of OA models.

The OA movement has made great strides. Compared to a decade ago, vastly more universities have online repositories and policies to encourage authors to make their publications available through them. There are many more OA journals, some with high prestige. More government agencies are mandating OA for all publications in relevant areas.

Nevertheless, there are problems. The move to OA is not nearly as rapid as proponents had hoped, in part due to tactics used by publishers but even more due to the scholarly prestige system, with its incentives for publishing in the “best” journals.

For books, OA options are less advanced. Few publishers allow authors to post book images online, even decades after publication, when no more hard copies are being sold. Few authors go to the trouble of putting pre-publication versions of their books online.

Yet with current technology, it is extremely simple to publish OA books with little or no cost. After producing a pdf of the book — something fairly easy to do with word processors — it can be provided free online. Furthermore, there are services such as lulu.com through which print-on-demand hard copies can be produced and sold at a moderate cost to the buyer and no cost at all to the author or publisher. Consider an esoteric scholarly tome that might sell 50 copies if produced by a commercial publisher. Why would any publisher take it on with such low sales, except at an exorbitant price? The same tome can be made free online and available for sale via print-on-demand for close to zero cost, and will probably receive far more readers from around the world.

Many publishers now make electronic versions of books available, but at a cost that restricts sales mainly to libraries. This disenfranchises those without free electronic access, though they can still read many pages via Google Books. The main reason why the majority of academics have not endorsed OA book publishing options is that they want their books published by publishers with high status.

publisher profits
Source: Alex Holcombe’s blog

Whose interests are being served?

Arguments for OA often appeal to self-interest or collective interest. For example, academics are encouraged to put their articles on institutional repositories or publish in OA journals because this will increase their visibility, readership and citations. Institutions are encouraged to adopt OA mandate policies to make scholarly work available to those with less money, including both academics in less well-funded institutions and members of the general public. Advocates of OA argue that costs will be reduced, taxpayer money used more efficiently (rather than being diverted to publishers) and universities seen as more accountable.

The usual arguments for OA can be taken a step further by asking additional questions about scholarly publication. OA means that research is available at little or no cost to readers, including students, other researchers and the general public. However, access is only one factor in making research useful to others.

One key element is understandability. Most academic writing is turgid, dense and filled with jargon, so much so that no one is likely to be interested in reading it except perhaps other academics in the same field, and even they usually prefer a more approachable style.

academese

The usual academic writing style is promoted through the expectations of editors and referees: a submission using colloquial language and an engaging style of writing is more likely to be rejected as superficial even when the content is exactly the same. Opaque writing styles serve to exclude those from other fields and maintain a mystique of insider knowledge.

Given the low cost of online publishing, constraints of length no longer have much relevance. Hence, greater consideration could be given to making scholarly writing accessible to wider audiences, by changing the expected style of regular articles or by offering a supplementary exposition for non-experts. Authors who did this could expect to attract a wider non-specialist readership, with the potential of greater cross-disciplinary collaboration and engagement with practitioners and users. Highly technical papers might be supplemented by explanations of the context and significance of the work for wider audiences.

Open access might make some contribution towards greater understandability. Authors whose work is freely available potentially speak to two audiences: specialists in their fields and interested non-specialists. The response of non-specialists is becoming more important in terms of impact, so some authors will be encouraged to write for this wider audience, just as more scholars are setting up blogs.

OA also provides an incentive for higher quality in research. This is most obvious in open post-publication peer review, in which comments can be made on articles after publication. Even without this sort of review, immediate availability of publications can temper the tendency to hype research results. If a media release makes a claim about helping cure cancer, interested readers can check the research article for confirmation, and also check whether its abstract correctly summarises the findings in the body of the paper.

The process of public scrutiny can be uncomfortable for authors, especially given the nastiness of much online commentary. Moderating of published comments seems essential, but it takes time and effort.

Conclusion

The Internet is making possible a revolution in publishing, in which a much wider range of individuals can contribute to scholarship and public debate in a variety of ways. OA is one facet of this revolution. However, there is considerable resistance to full adoption of OA. Publishers are making huge profits through their intermediary role, though it is becoming ever more irrelevant. The other major obstacle to change is the self-interest of researchers, who are driven by the quest for status. As Frosio writes, “the academic reward system continues to be a major obstacle for gold OAP [OA publishing]” (p. 161). Those who care about scholarship and about public participation need to be involved to help push developments in productive directions.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Giancarlo F. Frosio, Open Access Publishing: A Literature Review, CREATe Working Paper 2014/1, http://www.create.ac.uk/publications/000011

Frosio-OA-publishing

Thanks to Michael Organ for useful comments.

The benefits of face-to-face

Relationships can be highly beneficial in people’s lives. For best outcomes, they need to be face-to-face.

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In the past 20 years, there has been a boom in research on happiness, sometimes called wellbeing or flourishing. A range of behaviours and mental patterns have been shown to improve happiness, including being physically active, expressing gratitude, being optimistic, helping others and being forgiving. For some of these topics, authors have written entire books explaining the research and its implications.

Among all the methods of improving happiness, one of the most often cited is relationships. Research shows that positive interactions with others can make a huge difference to people’s lives. This includes family members, friends, neighbours, co-workers and many others, even extending to casual acquaintances and people met in commercial contexts, such as hairdressers and salespeople.

A few years ago, in the happiness course run by Chris Barker and me, the vagaries of timetabling meant that part way through one of my classes, my students and I had to walk across campus to get from one classroom to another. We carried out observations and  informal interventions during these walks. One of them was to observe the other walkers we saw on the way, and notice whether they were smiling or otherwise seemed happy. It was striking that those walking and talking in groups nearly always seemed happier than those walking alone.

If this topic interests you, I recommend Susan Pinker’s new book surveying research on relationships, titled The Village Effect. The subtitle gives a convenient summary of the main themes: How face-to-face contact can make us healthier, happier, and smarter. She provides a wealth of examples, case studies, findings and patterns to make the case for the benefits of personal relationships.

Village-effect

She tells about communities in the mountainous regions of Sardinia, where life is traditional and exacting, where people have rich personal connections and where they live far longer than would be expected going by other lifestyle factors such as diet. Pinker uses this as an extended example, also citing much other research on the effect of relationships on longevity and physical health.

The Sardinians are an exception, for they have maintained traditional patterns of village life in the face of incentives to “join the modern world.” There is a deep irony in aspects of contemporary economies. Higher standards of living can improve happiness, but also undermine it.

The irony is that most people want greater happiness, yet the way they go about it can undermine it. An example is seeking a higher income. There is plenty of research showing that, above a certain level, greater income and more possessions make only a marginal difference to wellbeing, certainly far less than alternatives such as expressing gratitude or being mindful. Yet many people, in search of improved happiness, will take on a second job or move to another city at the expense of time with their family and friends.

Face-to-face versus screens

In the past few decades, there has been a big shift from face-to-face interactions to digital connections using email, texts, Facebook and host of other platforms, not to mention the long-standing attraction of television, partly supplanted by video games. It might seem that social media, because they are interactive, are superior to the mass media of radio and television. Pinker quotes research about the advantages of face-to-face contact compared to digital contact.

The irony is that parents who spend their hard-earned cash on gadgets so their children will have immediate access to communication networks may also be facilitating their girls’ feelings of social exclusion. Girls with televisions, computers, and cellphones in their rooms, for example, sleep less, have more undesirable friends (according to their parents), and are the least likely to get together with their real buddies face-to-face. Yet, according to this study too, it is exactly these face-to-face interactions that are most tightly linked to feeling happy and socially at ease. If North American girls spend an average of almost seven hours a day using various media and their face-to-face social interactions average about two hours a day … then many girls are spending most of their spare time on activities that make them feel excluded and unhappy. (pp. 163–164)

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Such findings have significant implications in a range of areas. Children are especially in need of personal interaction to stimulate their developing minds, yet digital tools are proliferating and being used at ever younger ages. When it comes to formal education, face-to-face contact with teachers turns out to be crucial. Investments in better teachers appear to be far better for improving learning outcomes than investments in advanced technology.

Many Australian universities, being squeezed for cash, have cut back on class contact. Small tutorials, with maximum interaction between teachers and students, are made larger, and sometimes tutorials are abandoned in favour of lectures, or replaced by online interactions. Evidence cited by Pinker suggests that it would be better to get rid of the lectures and retain the tutorials — at least if learning is the goal.

For example, in one study, almost a million US students in grades 5 to 8 were surveyed about media use, while their school results were monitored. “With the advent of home computers, the students’ reading, writing, and math scores dropped, and they remained low for as long as the researchers kept tabs on them.” (p. 190)

susanpinker-by-susie-lowe
Susan Pinker

Is there any alternative?

Given that there are numerous ways to improve happiness, are relationships really so fundamental? There may be some loners who can be perfectly happy because they are great meditators or have found an activity that provides a satisfying experience of immersive involvement. Surely they can be happy with low levels of face-to-face contact.

Pinker addresses this, for example noting that although people on the autism spectrum have very poor relationship skills, they can still benefit from improving those skills and interacting more. However, I would not assume this is essential. No doubt even the most ungrateful person can become happier by becoming better at expressing thanks, but this is not the only way to become happier.

More generally, Pinker devotes a chapter to the negative aspects of relationships. Face-to-face connections can be highly damaging in some contexts, with fraudsters taking advantage of the trust engendered by social similarity.

Pinker’s overall message is to try to maintain face-to-face connections. Talk to the colleague in the next office rather than sending an email; take time to visit friends; have meals with family members, in the same room!

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However, wider trends are working in an opposite directions. Individuals can improve their own lives by building their personal connections, but must do this in the face of the relentless encouragement to use digital media and to pursue careers at the expense of time with friends and family.

Technology to the rescue?

According to Pinker’s argument, much of the decline in face-to-face interaction is due to displacement by technology, especially the ever-present screens in people’s lives. So technology, while making interaction at a distance far easier, is reducing something valuable.

For me, there remain further questions: are some sorts of technologically-mediated interaction considerably better than others, and could future media simulate being in a room with someone?

The loss of personal connection accelerated with the rise of television, so people watched screens with which they had no interaction. Watching television with others in the room offers the possibility of some live discussion, but it is increasingly common for each member of a household to have their own screen in their own room.

The telephone offers a far more interactive experience. Voices are incredibly rich with meanings independent of the words spoken, so there can be a personal connection at a distance, though visual and tactile dimensions are missing.

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Texting and email are more abstract forms of interaction — but at least they are personal, unlike television. Prior to email, people used to write letters, which include a tactile component, and a personal one when handwritten. But letters took a long time to arrive compared to a text. How do these media compare?

Then there is Skype, providing an aural and visual interaction much richer than either telephone or writing. Does it partially substitute for the real thing?

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The next stage is virtual reality, in which avatars interact with each other in realistic simulated three-dimensional spaces. Virtual reality technology is available today, but not widely used to mimic face-to-face interactions. In principle, it could eventually simulate nearly every aspect of human contact, even including touch and smell. It will never be exactly like physical presence, but will realistic simulation compensate? Not if people aren’t honest about themselves. Pinker cites research on online dating showing that 80% of people misrepresent their age, weight, height, appearance, income or other attributes.

Rather than look to technology to solve a problem exacerbated by technology, the alternative is to reassert the importance of physical presence. Pinker notes that affluent parents are now giving their children the advantage of schools and teachers with more personal interaction.

There is a certain irony in efforts to recreate the benefits of face-to-face interaction. Many of the poor people in the world live in extended families and in small communities where there are numerous routine personal interactions. They have the benefits of what Pinker calls “the village effect.” Do they have to pass through an isolating development transition, or are there ways to “develop” that maintain the advantages of face-to-face?

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Thanks to Don Eldridge for valuable comments.

Rapid learning

You can become pretty good at a new skill in just 20 hours by following Josh Kaufman’s advice.

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Josh Kaufman

Josh Kaufman is a busy man. He has three children, runs a business and is a writer on the side. Yet he wants to do more. He wants to acquire new skills and to learn them as quickly as possible.

There’s an enormous body of research on learning. There are millions of teachers in schools and universities, not to mention private teachers and coaches on every topic from driving to playing the violin. Despite this wealth of knowledge and experience, Kaufman was looking for something different: how to tackle a completely new skill and become competent as rapidly as possible, fitting it all into his busy life.

So Kaufman developed his own system, based on 10 principles of effective learning. Being a practical person, he drew on his experiences in developing the principles, and then tried out his approach. And he’s written a book about it: The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything … Fast (Penguin, 2013).

First 20 hours

Expert performance and rapid learning

There’s a growing body of research on expert performance, the sort of high-level competence that would make you a chess grandmaster, a piano virtuoso, or a famous scientist. The research suggests that achieving this level of performance usually requires at least 10,000 hours of practice. Furthermore, not just any sort of practice will do: it has to be what is called “deliberate practice,” during which you concentrate intensely on improving, typically by working on the most challenging tasks for your level of performance. A swimmer, for example, needs to be pushing most the time during training.

Kaufman respects those who seek this level of performance. His goal is something different: to become as good as possible in a short time. It is quite compatible with deliberate practice. Indeed, it could be seen as the beginning of a journey towards high-level performance.

Anders Ericsson, the most prominent researcher on expert performance, notes that in learning a new skill most people improve rapidly to start with, but then their performance level plateaus. For example, most people learning to drive improve steadily because they are putting themselves in ever more challenging situations. But as soon as they are reasonably competent, they stop pushing themselves: they are driving but not improving much. Race car drivers, on the other hand, need to keep challenging themselves to achieve much higher level skills.

dog-driver

Kaufman is interested in this early skill acquisition stage and how to make it really efficient. No messing about attending classes for him.

So how good can he get in just 20 hours? Kaufman’s 10 principles for rapidly acquiring skills seem plausible, but how to apply them is what counts. To illustrate this, he offers six case studies in which he personally set out to learn a new skill in just 20 hours. These case studies take up most of the book. They are fascinating and are powerful recommendations for Kaufman’s approach.

Typing: learning it fast

Kaufman was already a good typist. Using a standard online test, he could type 60 words per minute. But he felt he was moving his fingers too much and so wanted to learn to type using a different, more efficient keyboard.

The standard keyboard is called QWERTY, after the first six letters in the top row of keys. Nearly all keyboards are laid out this way, and nearly everyone who learns to type learns this system. So why would anyone want to change?

QWERTY_keyboard_layout
QWERTY keyboard

QWERTY was set up in the days of manual typewriters and designed so the moving keys wouldn’t get stuck. But in terms of finger movement it is not ideal. For example, a highly efficient key arrangement would have the most common letters, E and T, on the middle line of keys, so less finger motion is required.

Kaufman set himself a goal: in 20 hours, he would seek to learn to type using a different keyboard, up to the same speed as before, 60 words per minute. So how did he proceed?

If deliberate practice is the key to skill acquisition, then you might guess that Kaufman spent 20 hours practising using the new keyboard. This is only partly right. One of the key insights Kaufman provides is that it is vital to figure out the best way forward. Time spent doing this is at least as important as deliberate practice.

First he had to choose the alternative keyboard he wanted to learn. He investigated several options and chose Colemak, one that suited his circumstances. He figured out how to change his computer so that when he pressed keys, they gave Colemak rather than QWERTY outputs. He then purchased some key covers and set up his keyboard in the new configuration. Now he was ready to practise typing using Colemak.

colemak
Colemak keyboard

Deliberate practice is the key

How to practise? Kaufman searched the web to find training programs, and compared the ones he found, choosing one that suited his purposes. Then it was time to begin. He used the program for an hour every day, practising in the evening to that his new skills would be better cemented into his mind through sleep.

After just 20 hours total — comprising choosing the keyboard, setting it up and practising using it — he achieved his goal of typing at 60 words per minute in Colemak. Along the way, though, he did a little experiment that is one of the best advertisements for deliberate practice I’ve seen.

While learning the new typing system, Kaufman couldn’t just drop all his regular correspondence. He still needed to type. So as soon as he was competent, even at a slow typing speed, he used Colemak. But doing his correspondence wasn’t deliberate practice, because he was concentrating on what he was writing, not on improving his typing speed.

I wonder: What if I drop the deliberate practice for a while and just continue typing e-mails and surfing the web? I’m two-thirds of the way to my target performance level of sixty WPM [words per minute] after only fourteen hours of deliberate practice. Can ambient practice carry me the rest of the way, without additional focused effort?

I decided to do an experiment: I’m going to suspend my deliberate practice for thirty days and set what happens. I’ll continue typing normally in Colemak, without switching back to QWERTY. With as much time as I spend on the computer, I should be able to get enough ambient practice to hit sixty WPM, right?

After thirty days, I retook the typing test. Want to guess my typing speed?

Forty WPM. Zero improvement.

Even though I was typing quite a bit, I wasn’t actively focused on improving my skills. Ambient practice wasn’t enough to improve.

If you want to improve a skill, you need deliberate practice, at least in the early stages of skill acquisition. Lesson learned. (pp. 151-152)

Other skills

Kaufman describes his efforts at learning a variety of skills using his approach: yoga, computer programming, the game of go, and windsurfing. In some cases, it’s an advantage to be able to pay for good equipment, as in the case of windsurfing. Kaufman tells how he searches for information about the most suitable equipment for his purposes, yet at a moderate price. And he does this all within the 20 hours.

To my mind, his most impressive achievement was learning the ukulele. Musicians will tell you that the ukulele is one of the easier instruments to learn. In 20 hours you can only make a start on the violin or oboe. Although the ukulele is relatively easy, Kaufman set himself a performance target that most people would find impossibly daunting.

He was invited to give a talk at a conference to tell about his approach to rapid learning. It was just 10 days until the conference and he thought, “Why don’t I demonstrate my approach by learning the ukulele in 10 days and performing on it as part of my talk?” And so he did. He practised hard during those 10 days, but also, as usual, spent a good portion of the time ensuring that he adopted the most efficient approach to practice. The response to his talk, and the accompanying ukulele performance, exceeded his expectations.

Kaufman-playing-ukulele
Josh Kaufman on the ukulele

What happens after 20 hours and a reasonable level of competency? Kaufman makes it clear that this depends. In some cases he wants to keep going: he continues to use Colemak for touch typing. In other cases he decides not to do any more. He became a decent beginner at the game of go, but decided not to continue playing the game. After all, if he learns too many skills, he’ll run out of time to deploy them, much less to continue to improve at them.

If you have a desire to learn any of the skills Kaufman took up, for example computer programming, the details he provides about how he learned will prove helpful. Even if you want to learn something quite different, the case studies are inspiring. They show how to approach a completely new area and make the task manageable. In the age of the Internet, this has become far easier than it would have been a few decades ago.

Implications for learning

Kaufman is a learning addict: he loves learning for learning’s sake, as well as for the satisfaction of using skills. Could his approach be applied to schools and universities? In many courses, students in a semester spend more than 20 hours attending classes — at least if they attend as they are expected to — and are supposed to devote many additional hours in study. Yet, based on Kaufman’s account, my impression is that few students learn as much in 100 hours as he does in 20.

There are several reasons for this. Kaufman’s first principle of rapid skill acquisition is “Choose a lovable project.” Many if not most students take courses primarily because they want a diploma or degree. They might enjoy some of the topics, but study is commonly seen as onerous, whereas Kaufman sees it as part of an intensely absorbing challenge.

Another factor is that Kaufman is in charge of his learning process. He chooses what to learn and how to learn it. Students seldom have this autonomy.

Kaufman pushes himself really hard. He designs his deliberate practice so it is maximally effective in achieving goals he has set himself. Most students are driven to study not by their own desires but by targets imposed externally, by their teachers. Kaufman set himself a goal of performing the ukulele before an audience. Students have a goal of passing an exam set by their teacher.

20 hours, but not so rapid

Kaufman wants to acquire skills rapidly. Is it possible to learn efficiently but not so rapidly? I decided to apply a variant of Kaufman’s approach. I acquired some juggling balls and the book Juggling for the Complete Klutz, and started to practise. But rather than doing it intensely, I decided to practise only five minutes per day. After a few months, I could juggle three balls with two hands or two balls with one hand without too much difficulty — in less than 20 hours of practice. I discovered that the key is practising every day, even for just a couple of minutes.

Juggling

While learning, I demonstrated to myself the importance of concentration. If my thoughts wandered for even a second or two, I would inevitably drop the balls.

I’m not as brave as Kaufman: I’m not going to juggle in front of an audience, at least not yet!

Kaufman versus textbooks

A typical textbook tells about subject matter, whether philosophy or physics. What it doesn’t tell is how to go about learning in a really efficient fashion. Educational researchers know a lot about learning, but this is seldom translated into practical guides for high-speed learning. So it takes someone like Kaufman, not a professional educator, to provide an original, inspirational guide. If you really want to learn, enjoy it and get better quickly, then spend a few hours learning from Kaufman’s example.

But there is no substitute for practice, a point that Kaufman reiterates.

If you want to acquire a new skill, you have to practice. There is no other way.

You can prepare. You can research. You can eliminate distractions and alter your environment to make it easier to practice. You can find intelligent ways to make your practice more effective or efficient. But, in the end, you must practice.

What feels like the long way is the shortest way. Zero-practice shortcuts don’t exist. No practice, no skill acquisition. It’s as simple as that.

Why don’t we practice? Simple: we’re busy and we’re scared. …

The major barrier to rapid skill acquisition is not physical or intellectual: it’s emotional. Doing something new is always uncomfortable at first, and it’s easy to waste a ton of time and energy thinking about practicing instead of practicing. …

One final thought: the only time you can choose to practice is today.

Not tomorrow. Not next week. Not next month or next year. Today. (pp. 257-258)

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au