Monday, August 03, 2015

Here's How You Become an Expert

Want to become an expert? It doesn’t matter what the subject is, the principle for developing expertise is the same. My many years of personal experience and observing students convinces me of a learning axiom: the more you know, the more you can know.
A recent research report helps to explain what the brain is doing as it acquires expertise. By observing which brain areas are active at the same time, one can conclude that such areas are probably functionally connected even though they are located at different locations within the brain’s network of circuits. In recently reported experiments, researchers used MRI scans of subjects as they rested after mastering a set of initial associations of pairs of faces and objects and as they learned new pairs. Scans were collected during rest immediately after subjects had memorized a series of face/object pairs, and during learning of new face/object pairs or pairs that did not overlap the original paired set. The data indicated that spontaneous activation of hippocampal and neocortical functional connectivity during rest was related to better subsequent learning of new pairs. Moreover, the degree of functional connectivity during rest predicted the brain-area functional connectivity activation during the new learning experience.
The rationale for the experiment includes the well-known fact that the hippocampus is needed to promote storage of explicit memories in the neocortex. Moreover, we know that “off-line” rehearsal of memories occurs during mental rest and even sleep because the participating neural circuitry becomes periodically reactivated. The issue that the researchers pursued was based on an assumption that one purpose of memory is to enhance the learning of future related material. Thus, the hippocampal-neocortex connectivity that occurred during initial learning should also recur during rest and be relevant to new related material.
Spontaneous activation of the hippocampal-neocortical functional connectivity in MRI scans is the index of this off-line memory processing. The data showing the relationship of this connectivity during rest and new learning support the author’s general conclusion that “how our brains capture and store new information is heavily influenced by what we already know.”
This brings me to the real practical relevance of this research: learning to learn. What we see here is scientific evidence for how the brain teaches itself by learning to have more learning.
Here is a practical example of what I mean. I just finished attending the Newport Jazz festival, which included interview of some of the artists. Jon Faddis, a phenomenal trumpet player who can begin a phrase with high C and go up from there, discussed his experience with his trainees. He tells them what most of them won’t do: “If you are not practicing 4-6 hours a day, every day, you are just wasting your time.”  In other words, to become an expert jazz musician, you have to accumulate a large amount of prior knowledge, which of course takes lots practice. I have noticed in my own career that over time I am getting more and more competent to move into new areas of neuroscience even though I am getting older and supposedly have less ability to learn than when I was young.
This brings me to the subject of education. Our educational system is crippled by the apparent assumption that children are good learners because their brains are young. Therefore, curriculum focuses on content and testing. But children don’t have much knowledge to build on to accomplish efficient learning of new content. To compensate, schools need much more emphasis on teaching basic learning skills, which children don’t know much about either, because again they don’t have much experience at learning how to learn. I'm not sure that teachers get enough training for teaching learning skills. 
Just what are these skills that I think should be taught explicitly in the early grades? I am writing a book on that to help parents and teachers. Here, I can only summarize. Learning skills operate in a cycle that begins with motivation–and yes, that is something you can learn, especially grit. Then comes learning how to be attentive and to focus. Next is knowing how to organize learning material coherently to make it easier to master. Material to be learned needs to be understood, not just memorized. There are multiple tactics one can learn to improve the ability to understand complex material. The better you understand a subject, the less you have to memorize because there is so much that you can acquire through reasoning. Memorization skills, however, are far more useful than most teachers realize or know how to teach. Most under-performance of students on high-stakes tests is due to poor memory, which is why teachers go over and over ad nauseum the same material in preparation for tests. The final steps in the learning skills cycle are problem solving and creativity. And yes, both of those skills are teachable for those who know how.
Regardless of subject matter, the process of acquiring enough knowledge to set the stage to become an expert includes also the implicit learning of how to learn new material in the field. There are no shortcuts to becoming an expert. The process begins with learning how to learn.

Dr. Klemm, a.k.a. “Memory Medic,” teaches teachers about the learning skills cycle. See his recent books, “Memory Power 101” and “Better Grades, Less Effort.”

Schlichting, Margaret L., and Preston, Alison R. (2015). Memory reactivation during rest supports upcoming learning of related content. Proc. Nat. Acad. Science,