One of the questions that I grapple with constantly is centred around effective learning for students, and does secondary schooling produce generalists or specialists? In listening to a recent podcast* from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania (Don’t Underestimate Generalists: They Bring Value to Your Team; July 9th, 2019), it was claimed that the traditional path to success has emphasised the goal of striving to excel in a single discipline or field rather than being a generalist.
However, journalist David Epstein, the author of Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialised World was interviewed in the podcast and is seeking to challenge this view, offering an alternative point of view that, in some instances it is better to be a “jack of all trades, master of none,” as the old saying goes.
In his book, Epstein looks at the strengths of generalists versus specialists, focusing on how keeping a broad range of interests, experimenting and changing course every now and then are essential to finding your true passions — and the success that comes with loving what you do. He examines the path to elite sport and compares Tiger Woods to Roger Federer, and examines whether large amounts of deliberate practice and highly technical training is a better pathway than playing a dozen different sports, and delaying specialisation. Further to this, Epstein argues that the pattern and pathway of Roger Federer is better:
“All around the world, sports scientists track the development of athletes and found they have a so-called sampling period, where they gain these broad general skills to scaffold later learning. They learn about their interests. They learn about their abilities. They systematically delay specializing until later than their peers, who plateau at lower levels.”
However, becoming a specialist should not be abandoned entirely, as it has been proven to be effective in learning environments, where all information is available, people wait for each other to take turns, the next steps are clear, and they are based on pattern repetition (E.g. Chess). The argument by Epstein is that,
“If you’re in these kind learning environments, feedback is immediate and always fully accurate, so specialisation does work quite well. The problem is, the more that kind of expertise is based on either pattern recognition or repetitive motions, and the more you’re in one of those domains, the more likely it’s getting automated.”
And so, does a student benefit from learning in an ordered and structured environment, where one type of question is mastered before moving on to master the next? Or does learning require a degree of unpredictability, whereby different types of questions or problems are presented for a student to apply their skills for thinking, reasoning and problem-solving?
According to Epstein, variety in training (learning) is better in what is termed, ‘wicked learning environments’, where patterns don’t repeat and you have to do things on the fly and at speed, and you have to solve problems you haven’t seen before. In many domains of psychology, sport science and education, this is called, ‘transfer of learning’ and requires a broader-based learning approach. A student is therefore trying to learn how to match a strategy to a type of problem instead of just learning how to do repetitive patterns. Another question to consider, is how does this impact a person’s future career and income prospects?
The research quoted in both the book and podcast, offer a view that early specialisation has an advantage in terms of income in the workplace (post-school and university) but they often pick a ‘worse fit’ for themselves. Early specialisers tend to pick things they already knew about, because of their confidence in these domain. Those who delay specialisation catch them and surpass them by about six years out, and in many cases, the earlier specialisers start quitting their careers in much higher numbers because they failed to optimise the degree of fit between their ability and their interest in the work they do.
The advice for students that may be seeking to achieve well and build a foundation for life beyond school requires three key elements: The first element is to learn to set the right goals, build your strengths and change your interests to experiment with maximising your match quality. The flexibility within the middle years of school (Year 7 – 9) allows for these opportunities, as students can try a range of subjects and electives as well as engage with a range of topics within their compulsory subjects. As they develop their strengths and interests, engaging with the opportunities through the co-curricular offerings can enhance and broaden student learning. As noted by Epstein:
“We learn stuff about ourselves, our interests and our strengths as we try things, so we should have a period of zig-zagging and experimentation like those athletes, like those comic book creators, like those technology inventors. And we shouldn’t just see it as a sunk cost, where you say well, I’ve started down this path, so now I don’t want to get off.”
Of course, this isn’t easy as the challenge is to change your thinking from a belief that this is ‘lost’ or ‘wasted’ time. The better approach is to adopt a mindset or belief that what is ‘learned in one domain’ can be brought to the ‘other’. Perhaps the wise approach is to try as many broad options as possible, build your strengths as you develop your interests and look to specialise later in school or life.