Sunday, December 6, 2015

Problem solving takes practice, and practice takes problem solving.

It's probably been a while since I've talked about practice.

I'm sure part of the problem is that I feel like I haven't been doing enough of it, and the other part of the problem that every time I even say the word to myself I start replaying the classic Steve Porter jam "Press Hop" in my head.

But, let's put that aside for a moment. (Or, I'll wait the four minutes for you to watch the video. Whatevs.)

So, the other day, one of my friends called me up with a sample question from a study on cognitive bias, because they were reading an article in a magazine about the difference between intelligence and common sense and wanted to see if I could correctly answer a question that more than 50% of people asked from really expensive schools got wrong. I was able to come up with the right answer, and the study would suggest that if I were smarter I wouldn't have gotten it right because...

No, that doesn't make sense at all. People that practice certain kinds of problem solving are going to be inherently good at those kinds of problems. The article doesn't even say what the breakdown by discipline was for the people that got it wrong, or if there was any commonality to the students that got it right.

Yes, cognitive bias exists. Anchoring, where the mind tethers to the first piece of information given even if it's faulty, is a bad one - especially when a subject is rushed to make a decision. It's also not difficult to find lots of other different types of cognitive bias, and I would agree that overall being more intelligent doesn't necessarily solve that problem. For certain skills that we don't utilize all the time, but that we think we have a handle on, people fall back on strategies that are easy to retain and are often overly simplistic, often leading to odd biases that don't hold up to rational analysis. However, for a specific type of problem, you are going to find people that practice that skill and won't fall prey to a particular bias. (I would be genuinely surprised if any Algebra teachers missed the problem in the Gizmodo article that I linked to.)

I would even say that problem solving itself takes practice. You're not going to know where the oil goes in a car the first time you open the hood, and you might get slapped the first time you talk to some people, but if you're paying attention and the results are important to you, those are solvable problems. Analyzing word problems in math and becoming better at them is conducive to forming good habits when turning words into equations. Learning what things to look for, and having a plan when you can't initially find something to work from, takes multiple tries at observation, analysis, revision, and trial.

These are all the things that we do when we practice well. We work on a thing, and we try to observe it in some way. Perhaps it's a video camera, or a tape player, or sometimes it's the watchful eye of an instructor. Then, we analyze our observation. After analysis, it's time to make revisions and try again. What did we do well? What needs work? Do I know how to address the things that need work, or do I need to consult outside information?

What I find even more interesting about this is that in general, doing things tends to only make you better at that thing. Want to be better at Pac-Man? Play more Pac-Man. Certainly, you can memorize the pattern from a book, but it won't be much help if you're not really playing the game enough to learn how the joystick responds in certain situations. Want to memorize more of your grocery list? You have to work on it. Make a system, create mnemonic devices if you have to, visualize the list in your head, but do it, and learn, and do it again.

Can you play a bunch of brain games and make yourself smarter? Probably not, and for the reason I just stated. Doing a thing is only going to help you get better at that thing. Now, if the brain game is memorizing a list of 20 things, that might help you with your grocery list problem - or you could just write out your grocery list and play Pac-Man instead.

For some more insight into what you can do with practice, and how looking at something new is different from looking at it the hundredth time, try reading this interview with my favorite French Horn player.

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