More from David Epstein on kind and wicked learning environments

Note: These highlights aren’t my own – they’re highlights from Sawyer Hollenshead’s highlights page for David Epstein’s Range. (I guess that just such highlights-of-the-highlights are the reason you’re here).

Here’s Epstein:

[In] “kind” learning environments. Patterns repeat over and over, and feedback is extremely accurate and usually very rapid. In golf or chess, a ball or piece is moved according to rules and within defined boundaries, a consequence is quickly apparent, and similar challenges occur repeatedly. Drive a golf ball, and it either goes too far or not far enough; it slices, hooks, or flies straight. The player observes what happened, attempts to correct the error, tries again, and repeats for years. That is the very definition of deliberate practice, the type identified with both the ten-thousand-hours rule and the rush to early specialization in technical training. The learning environment is kind because a learner improves simply by engaging in the activity and trying to do better.

In wicked domains, the rules of the game are often unclear or incomplete, there may or may not be repetitive patterns and they may not be obvious, and feedback is often delayed, inaccurate, or both. In the most devilishly wicked learning environments, experience will reinforce the exact wrong lessons.

The world is not golf, and most of it isn’t even tennis. As Robin Hogarth put it, much of the world is “Martian tennis.” You can see the players on a court with balls and rackets, but nobody has shared the rules. It is up to you to derive them, and they are subject to change without notice.

There are domains beyond chess in which massive amounts of narrow practice make for grandmaster-like intuition. Like golfers, surgeons improve with repetition of the same procedure. Accountants and bridge and poker players develop accurate intuition through repetitive experience. Kahneman pointed to those domains’ “robust statistical regularities.” But when the rules are altered just slightly, it makes experts appear to have traded flexibility for narrow skill. In research in the game of bridge where the order of play was altered, experts had a more difficult time adapting to new rules than did nonexperts. When experienced accountants were asked in a study to use a new tax law for deductions that replaced a previous one, they did worse than novices. Erik Dane, a Rice University professor who studies organizational behavior, calls this phenomenon “cognitive entrenchment.” His suggestions for avoiding it are about the polar opposite of the strict version of the ten-thousand-hours school of thought: vary challenges within a domain drastically, and, as a fellow researcher put it, insist on “having one foot outside your world.”

David Epstein – Range

If you’re building a project or organisation that aims to make things better – a community group, business, network or charity – or if you’re working directly with other humans, you’re almost certainly working in a Wicked learning environment.

See also:

David Epstein on kind and wicked learning environments
Learning environments: kind, wicked and… fiendish?
Steve Levitt on the user experience of reading David Epstein and Malcolm Gladwell

I'd love to hear your thoughts and recommended resources...