This is a comprehensive book summary of the book Accelerated Expertise: Training for High Proficiency in a Complex World by Robert R. Hoffman, Paul Ward, Paul J. Feltovich, Lia Dibello, Stephen M. Fiore, Dee H. Andrews. Covering the key ideas and proposing practical ways for achieving what’s mentioned in the text. Written by book fanatic and online librarian Ivaylo Durmonski.
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The Book In Three Or More Sentences:
A foundational book for people who want to move from novice to expert in less time. The book, Accelerated Expertise, written by an army of professionals in the field of learning, summarizes most of the major publications on the theory with the same name: accelerated expertise and also accelerated learning. The content is based on workshops funded by the military to develop ways for the armed forces to learn new disciplines faster and at the same time retain the gained knowledge for longer. Accelerated Expertise is packed with resources on how to achieve high levels of proficiency in a field, quicker.
The Core Idea:
Speed in acquiring knowledge and skills to perform tasks is crucial. Not only for the military personnel, where there are often gaps between missions – and people need to re-learn important components before being deployed. But also in the current era. A place where jobs are becoming more complex and require the constant acquisition of new skills. Organizations, of all kinds, need experts to handle difficult tasks. However, it takes years for an individual to master a domain. To reach a level of high competency faster, people need – the authors argue – to be adaptive, resilient, and robust in the face of unexpected disruptions.
Reason To Read:
Don’t simply taste the refreshing tonic of “being right” and “remembering something”, once. Grab and hold the bottle. The knowledge and the skills-set this book will teach you will open your eyes to a new world of learning. A world where you can greatly increase your learning speed and retention so that “lessons learned” do not become “lessons forgotten”.
- When facts are suggesting that our performance is faulty. We do all sorts of mental maneuvers to rationalize our inadequate behavior.
- To master a field faster, one must engage in the process of dealing with tough cases.
- Motivation in relation to becoming an expert plays a crucial role. After all, a person needs to “keep going” to reach proficiency.
7 Key Lessons from Accelerated Expertise:
- Lesson #1: The Need For Better Transfer of knowledge
- Lesson #2: Accelerated Learning – A Concept For Reaching Mastery
- Lesson #3: Why Reaching High Proficiency Is Difficult
- Lesson #4: How to Adapt to Ill-Structured Situations
- Lesson #5: Overlearning, Re-Learning, And Attitude Are Essential for Mastery
- Lesson #6: Expose Yourself to More Difficult Tasks
- Lesson #7: Practice With Zeal
Lesson #1: The Need For Better Transfer of knowledge
The military had a problem: it takes years for an individual to become proficient in a field and get awarded with the badge of a master.
The reasons are plenty. Fields are complex. Requirements and information regarding the discipline are ever-evolving. There is always irregularity in relation to encountering hard-to-handle cases.
Unless people are continuously deliberately practicing and getting feedback while handling difficult tasks. The thing an individual will encounter in relation to his level of skills is one: degradation.
An example the authors share in a book is a person who owns skills in relation to maintaining an F-16. This person gets promoted to a supervisory position. With this move, the main daily tasks of this person are now new – he needs to supervise others. But that’s not the only challenge he is facing. Besides training for his new role. He also needs to ensure that his previous skills – in relation to maintaining the aircraft – remain intact and even evolving.
These challenges are quite common in all fields – not just the military.
We are constantly changing positions. Switching between tasks that require a different set of skills.
To progress – and avoid regression. Special care is needed not only in relation to the act of obtaining new skills. But also in keeping and further improving the ones we currently own.
That’s where the theory of accelerated learning enters. A concept that rapidize training and improves the time someone needs to reach high levels of proficiency.
“As workplaces and jobs become more cognition-intensive, organizations need to take traditional notions of training to new levels, and well into the territory of complex systems. Workers in sociotechnical systems must be trained to be adaptive, so that they can cope with the ever-changing world and ever-changing workplace.” Robert R. Hoffman
Lesson #2: Accelerated Learning – A Concept For Reaching Mastery
Experts argue that it takes around 10,000 hours of work to master a field. Another rule of thumb is that it takes around 10 years for a person to achieve expertise.
Sadly, that’s a lot of time to make people beyond proficient.
So, the “inventors” of accelerated learning methodology were trying to solve the following problem: “Can we turn an apprentice into an expert in less than ten years?”
Based on the findings in the book, it does seem possible. But the process is strewn with obstacles and requires a lot of work.
With this in mind, let’s look at what are the main components of the concept of accelerated learning:
Five Senses of Accelerated Learning:
- Rapidized Training: The concept of training people to obtain a minimal level of proficiency faster than usual.
- Accelerated Proficiency: The concept of training people to obtain high levels of proficiency faster than usual.
- Facilitated Retention: The concept aiming to prevent knowledge decay – i.e., what was learned should remain remembered.
- Rapidized Cognitive Task Analysis: The concept of better understanding the thought processes of experts so you can apply them in decision-making and also the ability to teach the knowledge to others.
- Rapidized Transposition: The need to quickly transfer lessons learned from the training camp to the actual world.
Not only that the person who is training for proficiency should be motivated to reach beyond ordinary results – and stay motivated during the course of the training program. But also the training program should be designed with care.
Amongst the many requirements, the authors identify a couple of characteristics individuals need during their training to reach high levels of proficiency:
- Robustness: The ability to remain effective – do your best – across a range of tasks and situations.
- Resilience: The ability to quickly recover and keep pushing towards the goals even when there are destabilizing factors – negative feedback, losing a tournament, personal problems, etc.
- Adaptivity: The skill of using different techniques from various fields for reaching a state of success.
An essential element that will improve all the above is the following: engaging in problems that stretch your current capabilities.
The more you go beyond your current skills. The faster you’ll improve.
“Professionals must acquire knowledge and reasoning skills that pertain to critical domain goals but which must be exercised in differing situations or contexts. Capability must transfer in this sense.” Robert R. Hoffman
Lesson #3: Why Reaching High Proficiency Is Difficult
We typically stop improving when we reach a condition called Journeyman – a person who can perform his job unsupervised but still needs orders.
Beyond the average-looking label Journeyman, lies the holy grail of proficiency: becoming an Expert and after that being labeled as a Master.
In the book, the character Master is described as:
“A master is one of an elite group of experts whose judgments set the regulations, standards or ideals. Also, a master can be that expert who is regarded by the other experts as being ‘the’ expert, or the ‘real’ expert, especially with regard to subdomain knowledge.” Robert R. Hoffman
Besides that, Masters are the ones who can best transfer their knowledge to others – teach others.
If you look around, however, we’ll rarely see Experts and Masters. As noted in the beginning. Most people are performing average at best.
So how can you go beyond your current limits and qualify for a Master?
It seems that all experts agree here.
For a person to get awarded with the crown of mastery. He should focus on one single thing (followed by a sub-tasks):
The quantity and the quality of the practice is considered the single greatest defining factor of reaching superior expertise.
But practicing doesn’t seem so hard. I can go outside and kick the ball all day. Does that mean that I’ll become a professional football player after a couple of years?
Not at all.
So, the next logical question here is: What makes the achievement of high proficiency so damn difficult?
Two main things:
Lack of Hard To Handle Problems
There is a difference between practice and deliberate practice.
You need to work hard on hard problems. Your level of skills is tightly related to how much you work on difficult tasks.
The problem here is that difficult tasks are rare.
If I want to become a professional football player. I need to constantly play with others that are better than me.
When non-experts are consuming new information. They simplify the concepts in their heads. This is a natural way we learn.
For instance, if I watch someone disassemble my refrigerator. I’ll most probably remember the main tasks. But will this be enough to do the exercise on my own – and do it successfully? Surely not.
Moreover, the problem is not only that we simplify what we learn – which means that our knowledge is incomplete. The main issue here is that we defend our simple understandings – the concept also known as knowledge shields.
When we are confronted with evidence that contradicts our views. We do all sorts of mental maneuvers to rationalize what we know without making a positive change in our knowledge. Or in other words, we tend to maintain incorrect beliefs about various tasks which makes it impossible for us to improve.
“The knowledge shields allow people to maintain their incorrect beliefs and understandings. It requires effort, practice and experience (i.e., the achievement of expertise) for people to begin to overcome the knowledge shields.” Robert R. Hoffman
Lesson #4: How to Adapt to Ill-Structured Situations
How do you approach weather forecasting?
Among the pool of things to do, you’ll probably look at radar images to construct a forecast.
But even if you look at all the data and spend hours analyzing it. There is a huge chance that your forecast can be wrong.
That’s the primer on ill-structured domains.
Unlike playing a sport of some sort or solving a mathematical equation. Where all the rules are set and you know what you need to focus on to beat the opponent/solve the equation. Ill-structured domains are messy.
To navigate in such wicked environments. Besides constantly engaging in difficult tasks. One should learn The Cognitive Flexibility Theory (CFT).
The premise of CFT is that becoming proficient in a field depends on:
- Your ability to constantly upgrade and refine your knowledge.
- Your ability to restructure what you know based on the specific problem.
- Your ability to tailor knowledge from one field to a totally different field.
Plainly, your knowledge is never static. You remain “cognitive flexible” and mold your thinking based on the situation at hand.
Given the complexity of the world we live in. To stay ahead. You need to stay flexible.
The two main points of CFT are the following:
- Learning and gaining more knowledge helps the person spot his previous errors. This way, he is less likely to use a knowledge shield – think that he is right while he is not – which can hinder the creation of a richer mental model.
- Learning and gaining feedback will help the person un-learn certain faulty concepts he previously had in his mind and create a new more accurate representation of reality.
In both of these cases, trying, falling, and getting feedback in the process is crucial.
Scientists in the field of learning all agree that people learn best from their mistakes than from what they do right.
However, in some jobs, you can’t afford to make a mistake. And moreover, when everything works, it’s less likely to receive feedback about your performance.
What can you do then?
What experts do to push forward is to seek out corrective feedback. Feedback that allows them to perceive their errors.
“A sentiment that has been expressed by many people and in many ways is that apprentices make the same mistake twice, journeymen make the same mistake once, and experts work until they never make mistakes.” Robert R. Hoffman
Lesson #5: Overlearning, Re-Learning, And Attitude Are Essential for Mastery
One of the key ingredients to a high level of proficiency is how you think about training.
Pilots who feel good about their strengths and are comfortable with their weaknesses. Pilots who recognize their own limitations and take steps to make corrections. Perform far better than pilots who have the “this will be easy” attitude. Such who think that they’ll get things right once they start performing the new job.
Plainly, as written in the book, “they don’t know what they don’t know.” That’s why they are considered dangerous.
Refresher training programs for pilots are something common.
Since there is commonly a large gap between one mission and another. To avoid skill deterioration, pilots regularly have to refresh their skills – re-read literature, use simulators, fly planes, etc.
What instructors noticed in relation to the skill decay phenomenon – and learning in general – when re-engaging with pilots is quite interesting:
- There is no escaping the forgetting curve. Humans lose nearly 50 percent of any new material. That is, unless a person is not engaged in re-learning exercises.
- The better you have become in an area, the faster your skills will “return” after a hiatus.
- Mastering a skill is about continuing to learn even if you’re no longer making mistakes. In other words, overlearning is essential for becoming an expert.
- Training shouldn’t be concentrated on a couple of days period (massed practice). But distributed over a longer period (spaced practice).
- Tasks that require fewer than 9 steps to be performed are better remembered by people as opposed to tasks that are within 15 steps or more.
All of these components can be applied to how you learn (or teach).
The way you approach learning a subject determines your level of proficiency.
“Learning continues beyond the point where accuracy is perfect, and, more importantly, accuracy asymptotes rapidly in many tasks, leading to a potentially false conclusion that the material has been mastered… [and] because learning continues past error-free trials, overlearning may really just be a higher level of skill acquisition.” Arthur Winfred Jr.
Lesson #6: Expose Yourself to More Difficult Tasks
If I can sum up the insights from the book in one sentence, this will be: Proficiency in a field happens by exposing yourself to more rare and hard-to-handle problems.
The more you “meet” seemingly mission-impossible tasks. The faster you’ll learn and improve.
That’s the main idea of the “learn-by-doing” approach.
And it makes sense to work.
Learning how to do the basic tasks is surely needed. But these rudimentary skills are not enough to upgrade your mental models and make you an expert. You need more wicked occurrences. These will shape your thinking and upgrade your decision-making skills.
Sadly, the real world most commonly provides opportunities to do routine tasks. That’s the main reason why it takes years for someone to become good at something. Since it will take you years to engage with difficult problems, it will take years for your skills to develop.
Traditionally, harder and non-routine tasks are handed to senior people to handle. While why this is done is obvious – they are more skilled. If a person wants to substantially increase his skills in an area, he should proactively engage in handling difficult tasks.
In the book, the researchers who were trying to reduce the time a person needs to transition from a journeyman to an expert did the following: They were tasked with the assignment to time-compress difficult tasks.
This led to the concept of creating case libraries.
As the phrase suggests, a case library is a library of real-world cases. Interviews with experts. Analysis of different tasks/situations that should be all used in training sessions.
An example of accelerated learning based on the concept of case libraries in medicine is the following:
An expert describes in a step-by-step manner a complicated surgery. Then, additional experts iterate on the description. They add extra details plus descriptions of the reasons for the steps – what are the risks and the benefits of performing each step, the tools used, share what less experienced surgeons often miss, add if-then rules, etc.
All of this results in a “gold-standard” guide that can be used in a training session.
Although this method does help, a person needs to “watch out” for his knowledge to become “automized.” That is, your knowledge to rely only on the steps mentioned in the case and basically to exclude thinking. So, you shouldn’t blindly follow commands. A big part of every task is to think and do additional research. By doing this, and with time, you’ll figure out why experts do what they do.
“It will be necessary to develop a repository of cases scaled for difficulty relative to the levels of proficiency. For each level, we will need cases that are fairly ordinary at that proficiency level but also “level stretchers”— cases that push capability beyond the current stage.” Robert R. Hoffman
Lesson #7: Practice With Zeal
Arguably the most powerful quote mentioned in the book in relation to motivation and expert performance is the following:
“Amateurs work until they get it right; professionals work until they can’t get it wrong.” Julie Andrews
The core components of achieving high proficiency in a field seem simple but extremely difficult to sustain.
According to the book, expertise is a condition of:
- The number of hours you practice.
- The quality of the practice.
- Ongoing motivation to practice difficult tasks.
You can’t just throw a ball and expect to become the greatest basketball player – even if you do it for years. One needs to constantly and voluntarily engage himself in difficult tasks to achieve high proficiency.
This is labeled as the “practice with zeal” approach.
The challenge here is that motivation can quickly diminish. Especially when a person who is still a journeyman experiences failure. We need to have a sense of achievement to balance the sense of failure.
How this can be done?
It’s mostly a matter of patience and self-conviction.
The good news is that motivation tends to increase with the increase in skills. Meaning that the better you become, the more motivated you’ll be to push through.
But what else is needed besides motivation?
Surely gaining expert skills can be done if we just “do the work”. But here we’re mostly concerned with gaining these powers – faster.
For this purpose, let’s briefly observe what a person can do to accelerate his skill in a field – close the gap between novice and expert in a more quick manner.
While there are many components in the book and the authors argue that the high complexity of a field makes it impossible to compose one “unique” training. Probably the most interesting idea about speeding-up mastery is through “tough case time compression.”
This means that:
- A case library of difficult cases is created that captures the most challenging tasks in the field.
- Scenario-based training is established based on lessons learned from experts – and observed by experts.
- People are thought to think like adversaries.
- Reviews and retrospection are done after training sessions.
- The end goal is for the trainee to obtain new strategic knowledge, adaptability, and resilience.
Domain experts overcome challenges with ease. They can think, decide, and act rapidly even in the face of adversity. They can recognize patterns that others cannot. They can act by intuition.
If you’re looking to achieve all of the above, faster. Your paramount goal should be to engage yourself in the habit of facing difficult problems. Getting feedback and using this feedback to make corrections.
The more tough, hard-to-handle cases you encounter. The faster you’ll increase your skills.
“Achieving expertise requires a constant ‘stretching’ of the skill (defined by increasing challenges), high levels of intrinsic motivation to work hard on difficult problems, practice that provides rich, meaningful feedback, and practice based on mentoring or expert instructional guidance.” Robert R. Hoffman
- Knowledge Management: Corporations face the following issue: When retiring people leave, valid information leaves with them. The concept of Knowledge Management refers to the idea that the knowledge smart people possess should be captured, shared, and trained to others. For that to happen, you first need to identify individuals who possess knowledge worth capturing. You should look for these three things: 1) Knowledge that is unique to them; 2) Critical for the organization; 3) Tacit and practically being undocumented. Formulating and implementing a procedure to document individual expertise should be part of the to-do list of organizations of all sizes. When done continuously, this practice creates a library of unique experiences that can be “handed” to juniors, which can greatly improve their entry into the firm.
- Getting feedback: Getting regular feedback about your work is an essential step towards mastery. However, this practice can also have a negative effect. Immediate feedback can improve your performance in the short term, but it can hinder your long-term progress. The authors of the book explain that when you have the time to think on your own about how well (or not) you did – what you did wrong, right, what might be done differently. You are able to reflect. Thus, refine your own reasoning and correct your behavior. Therefore, you shouldn’t completely outsource the review of your performance to someone else.
- Think Like a Commander: The desire for the military to accelerate learning led to the creation of the Think Like a Commander training program (TLAC). The program aims to prepare officers for the battlefield. The training is basically trainees going through a dozen of scenario-based cases in a compressed time. The trainee is playing the role of the captain. As events unfold, conflicting information is presented and the trainee is evaluated by experts. An interesting part of the program is that there are “freezes”. A moment during the training where there is a pause and information is provided to the trainee about what expert commanders might have noticed, decided, and what possible alternative interpretations of the situations they would have made. The program itself received (and still does) considerable attention, as it helps officers become better tacticians and adopt good thinking patterns for the battlefield.
- Assembly of knowledge: Being smart is not just holding a briefcase of knowledge related to a field. According to the Cognitive Flexibility Theory, it’s mostly associated with your ability to cross-reference between different concepts, domains, ideas, so you can construct a solution tailored to the specificity of the problem at hand. When you are learning new things, the goal shouldn’t be just to remember and after that recall the information. The grand goal should be to “assembly knowledge”. That is, the material you gather should be like fluid. Never static, but always moving across fields. Helping you apply concepts from one field to a totally different discipline. Moreover, the process of gaining new knowledge also includes unlearning. We need to remove obsolete mental models in our heads to make room for new, better concepts.
- Engage in tough cases: Decreasing the time someone needs to become an expert is a matter of engaging in tough cases. The faster you encounter difficult tasks, the faster you’ll increase your skills. As noted above, the problem is that difficult cases are rare occurrences. Moreover, the term “tough case” is a relative one because, for experts, some tasks are considered routine ones even if they are challenging for people of lower skill levels. This leads to: What you should do? How do you scale proficiency? One way is to read interviews of people who succeeded in a field. However, equally important is to read stories of people who failed – which are harder to find. After that, analyze why they failed and what you can learn from these failures. And while reading all of the above, take note that experts tend to oversimplify things. Meaning that you should read between the lines. When an expert simplifies, this doesn’t mean that a task will be easy for you. Learn to spot the real challenge. Another example is to ask yourself and your colleagues: What are the toughest cases in relation to your current job? Or the position you want? Then, work on these.
Commentary and Key Takeaway
It’s so hard to summarize this book. It’s swarmed with insights about learning and about how one should approach a field – if he wants to master it.
The authors of Accelerated Expertise: Training for High Proficiency in a Complex World share findings from many different studies and research papers in relation to capturing knowledge and later using the insights so one can become proficient in the field.
A lot of the work in the book is related to the military – as it’s funded by the US Department of Defense. But the lessons are easily convertible to practically any field.
What I’m probably missing is a clear, one-page structure of what a person should focus on if he wants to become highly proficient in a field. Not that you can’t derive your own cheat sheet (like I did above), but it would have been a nice addition to the material.
Personally, I think that the most useable. The most important part of the text – which is quite frequently mentioned – is that one should engage in the most difficult cases in the domain he’s looking to master if he wants to speed up proficiency. However, hard-to-handle cases are not simply waiting to be tackled. You should do your own research to find what top performers were mainly struggling with while they were climbing the peak. Then, gradually tackle these cases.
Motivation is often overlooked in achieving expert performance. Since your progress will be slow and practically non-existent at first, it will be tempting to quit. You’ll say that “this is not worth it.” I think that if you want to become good at something, you should constantly work on your motivation – to keep the fire burning.
“The expert knows there is no substitute for going out to look at the problem yourself… out there smelling the ashes. [We need to] bottle these experiences to simulate them… [the] look and feel and smell of critical events is what defines the problem.” Robert R. Hoffman
“Learning advances when flawed mental models are replaced, and is stable when a model is refined and gets harder to disconfirm.” Robert R. Hoffman
“To achieve this, however, the default mental model must first be expressed and analyzed. Because cognition and activity are inextricably linked, a workplace cannot simply add new mental models on top of the old. Just as architects must often tear down old structures before they can rebuild, so the individual mind and the organizational brain must clear away the default mental model before novel ways of working can emerge.” Robert R. Hoffman
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