Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Accelerating Learning: Is it possible to beat 10,000-hour rule?

In his very well-written and popular book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell popularized 10,000-hour rule. This rule is based on work done by Ericson, a psychologist.  The basic premise behind this rule is that it takes 10,000 hours of quality practice to become an expert in something. Another wonderfully written book Bounce by Mathew Syed also referred to this rule. Both books attempt to explain anatomy of success, in particular, extreme success. 10,000-hour rule has been interpreted by the popular media in many different ways. You might disagree with the numerical value of the number of hours it takes to become an expert. However, there appears be no doubt that currently it takes a long time to become an expert.

We are living in the age of rapid technological advances. The rapid change of technology is a harbinger of creative destruction. As an existing industry dies due to obsolescence of the underlying technology, many jobs associated with it disappear too. Similarly, the birth of a new industry creates many new jobs. We will soon be approaching the situation where people will need to retool themselves by acquiring new skills every five to ten years to ensure that they remain employed.      

This new reality is in conflict with the way education system works today.  To become expert at something and get a well-paying job, one must spend years in post-secondary training.  If you want to change your field significantly, you can count on spending several years in the school again. 10,000-hour rule seem to provide a justification for it! However, spending years in school to retool themselves after losing the job is not going to be an economically viable option for most people.

We need to find a better way. One way would be to accelerate the learning process.  Can we beat 10,000-hour rule? Can we master a new craft in 1,000 hours instead? 
In a conventional classroom, one memorizes lots of facts and information, develops motor skills necessary to do the physical tasks associated with the profession (e.g., surgery), and learns problem solving and decision making skills. In disciplines that involve creating something new (e.g., engineering design, architecture), one also learns synthesis process and divergent thinking to enable creation of new artifacts.        

We live a different world compared to the early twentieth century. However, we have not made any significant leap in the learning process over the past one hundred years. I would like to share the following observations:

  • A large amount of time in a conventional education program is spent on memorizing lots of facts and information.  Clearly, it was necessary to do it in the past. But within few years, we can envision a smartphone that gives a person ability to instantly search for virtually every known fact and information.  How crucial is it to devote time to memorizing all the facts associated with a profession? We can instead imagine a scenario where a human memorizes crucial high level facts that help him/her in understanding how the information is organized within the field, but the low level facts need not be stored in the human brain. The human can access them from the cloud on as-needed basis. The decreased emphasize on rote memorization can speed up the learning process.
  • In many educational programs, a significant amount of time is spent on motor skill development.  Many future jobs will be done with assistance from robots (and perhaps exoskeleton). This should reduce the time needed to develop motor skills.    
  • In the current education system, problem solving, decision making, synthesis, and divergent thinking skills are learned in the context of a discipline.  So these skills are not easily transferable to a new discipline. For example, let us assume that you are currently an architect and would like to switch to bio-medical engineering. Unfortunately, it will take you many years in school to accomplish this.  We ought to be able to structure education such that problem solving, decision making, synthesis, and divergent thinking skills are learned in such a way that they can be easily transferable from one career (e.g., architect) to another (e.g., bio-medical engineer).   
  • Technology can be used during the learning process to ensure every hour spent on learning actually contributes to learning. Facial expression recognition (and perhaps non-invasive brain imaging) can help in making sure that the person is not getting bored or frustrated! This ought to improve the learning process. Personalized computer-based tutoring system should also improve the efficiency of learning process.  
In my opinion, accelerating the pace of learning is one of the biggest challenge and opportunity facing the human race.  Clearly, training world-class athletes and musicians will continue to take more than 10,000-hour of quality practice. But we ought to be able accelerate learning in many other fields.