March 10, 2012

On skill acquisition

A couple of months ago, I ran into this video by the Japanese coin magician Ponta the Smith.  Its elegance awoke my long dormant interest in close-up sleight-of-hand magic which had started when I was a kid and had peaked in LA taking classes at the Magic Castle.  I am especially fond of coin magic because its effects are so simple and direct.  I started watching the masters and practicing again.  My hands started being able to do things that they were not able to do a few days ago.  It surprised me to remember how much fun it was to acquire a new physical skill, and that I had not done so in more than a decade!

Then my friend Alkan showed me a video of Terry Laughlin, a swim coach with a unique training style.  He compares dolphins at 80% efficiency with the best olympic athletes at 8% and claims there is a lot to gain from reducing drag compared to adding power to the strokes.  Ernest Maglischo's standard reference also has consistent advice on correct body alignment.  While scanning Maglischo's book I was shocked to discover that it was not clear whether Newtonian or Bernoulli forces dominate the analysis of the swim stroke!  (Hey physicists, when you take a break from looking for the Higgs boson maybe you can help out with this?)  I have been swimming all my life and no matter how hard I tried I could not break my efficiency barrier at 17 strokes for a 25m pool.  After watching a couple of Laughlin's videos I was able to do it in 13!

Continuing on a chain of skill-acquisition serendipities, I came across Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer.  I should cover it more fully in a separate blog post.  In addition to giving an excellent synopsis of our current understanding of memory, it introduced me to the work of Anders Ericsson on skill acquisition. Ericsson has achieved some recent fame thanks to his research showing that experts tend to require about ten thousand hours of training to achieve their word-class status.  However what got my attention was the finding that when ordinary skill acquisition hits a plateau and improvement stops, that is rarely the sign of an innate limit, but rather the result of the skill becoming compiled and autonomous.  The trick to going past your plateaus and improving further is to bring the activity back to consciousness in sessions of "deliberate practice" where you pay attention to your technique and get constant and immediate feedback on your performance.  This is consistent with my swimming experience: Laughlin's videos made me pay attention to every stroke, in effect made me re-learn how to swim, and the 25m stroke count feedback pointed me in the right direction.

I am currently debating whether I should continue my self experimentation in the domain of Go, using techniques championed for chess by my friend Michael de la Maza, or improve my Bridge game by deliberate practice on card memory.  This is just too much fun.

On a more serious note, all this shows how little we know about skill acquisition and education in general and how much room there might be for improvement.  It seems to me the only way out of this conundrum is to allow experimentation in the educational domain with proper feedback and reward for innovative educators.

(*) Some of my favorite coin masters: David Roth, Michael Rubinstein, Jay Sankey, Gregory Wilson, David Stone, Giacomo Bertini, Kainoa Harbottle, Curtis Kam, Homer Liwag, Apollo Robins, Shoot Ogawa.

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