The Keys to Teaching "Old Dogs" New Tricks

In this Rule Breaker Investing podcast, David Gardner is highly pleased to interview Dr. Anders Ericsson, one of the world's foremost experts on expertise. His work has been cited in multiple best sellers, including Moonwalking with Einstein, Outliers, and How Children Succeed. It also was the basis for an idea that Malcolm Gladwell popularized -- the "10,000 Hour Rule," which posits that it takes that much practice to reach mastery of a skill. Of course, as Ericsson has oft repeated since then, there's a lot more to mastery than that.

In this segment, they cover questions about learning new skills at both ends of the age spectrum -- when we're young, and when we're old. On the one hand, says Ericsson, pursuit of mastery can be a lifelong effort. On the other, there are so many ways we could improve how we teach kids in America.

A full transcript follows the video.

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This video was recorded on Oct. 4, 2017.

David Gardner: You know, we are The Motley Fool, and our name comes from Shakespeare. The fools were the ones who fought conventional wisdom. That's how we've kind of framed it up. They were the only ones who could tell the king or queen the truth back in medieval courts without having their head lopped off. They mixed some humor in.

I feel like I'm talking to somebody who is -- this is a compliment from me, of course -- a capital-"f" Fool. There is some amusement in your book, which I enjoyed, but primarily you're taking on a lot of subjects that people had set ideas about and it turns out they weren't right. And by the way, if you want to just start railing against anything, I enjoy that. If there's a conventional wisdom that really bothers you, either in your field or outside of your field, I'd be curious what you'd have to say. But at least one, maybe to get you started, is this idea that older people can't learn things.

Anders Ericsson: Yeah, there's this real confounding here between what people believe they can do and what they're actually doing. So if you don't believe that you're going to be able to master a new language when you're older, you're not going to do that. And I think what we're now seeing is emails and other kinds of contacts from older people who, after reading our book, are really reassessing what it is that they should be able to do. I think that's so exciting to see demonstrations of people who actually thought that they couldn't do something and then maybe a year later can report back and say they're working with a teacher.

And I think it's really important here that you have a teacher that has experience with people of your age or with your background knowledge, because the path to successful performance is going to depend very much on the kind of background characteristics that you have, so you need a teacher who had those kinds of experiences with their previous students.

Gardner: You know, the great line -- and I can't remember whether you included it in your book or not, Maybe you know this one and maybe you don't. But from Henry Ford, the American entrepreneur. I've used this one a number of times on Rule Breaker Investing. I love this line. "Whether you think you can, or whether you think you cannot -- you're right."

Ericsson: Well, that's certainly the case. I guess I would just constrain it here that this thinking that you can do something is not going to be enough. You really need to have somebody else, at least in my mind, have demonstrated the path that they took to get to the point where you want to be. So basically, having that validation that other people have been able to do it, and by actually studying them or getting the help from teachers who have helped other individuals reach that point, that's the promise that I see. and that I'm trying to convince people that they should pay attention to.

Gardner: I think one of the great points that you make that is going to be very resonant with a lot of our listeners and a lot of Motley Fool fans is -- and you've used the word a number of times now -- teaching, coaching, teaching, finding a good teacher. And I'm thinking -- this is a little bit of a digression. Humor me, if you will. But I read a wonderful book in the last year or so called The Smartest Kids in the World. It's by Amanda Ripley. I'm not presuming you've necessarily heard of that or read that book. Have you?

Ericsson: I think I own the book, but I have not had a chance to read it yet. So it's on the sort of stack of books that I'd like to read.

Gardner: Excellent. Well, I do recommend it to you. And you've read so much more than I have that I very humbly nudge that one forward. But one of the things that Amanda Ripley does in her book is she profiles the approaches to education taken by different countries in the world, a lot of it is based on the worldwide test whose acronym I'm forgetting right now. Perhaps you know it. But it's this sort of, like, hey where does the U.S. rank in math worldwide?

She focuses on a few countries that are in the top 10 and ahead of the U.S., and they're very different cultures. South Korea, I think was No. 3, Finland was No. 1, and I think Poland was No. 8. She chose American exchange students -- this is part of what makes the book compelling, because as Americans we like to see through American eyes -- and she takes us into those educational cultures through American eyes with exchange students in those three radically different environments.

By no means am I going to start summarizing any of them now, but I do want to say what comes across clearly is the power and value of good teaching. Finland is No. 1 worldwide for its educational system. I know you're from Sweden. Sweden, of course, also ranks very high. The Nordic countries always do well on these tests.

But there is a tremendous amount of effort to train teachers, and it is probably not the highest-paying job in those countries. It pays decently, but really there is tremendous respect accorded to teaching and coaching. So a little bit of a digression there, but I wonder if you have any reflections either about your native country of Sweden or what I just said about The Smartest Kids in the World.

Ericsson: I think that general research fits very nicely. One of the little pieces that I've taken out of that work is when an American teacher asks a question, he or she only waits for a few seconds before they give the answer; whereas in, basically, Japan -- I think that was the research that was explicitly done with videotapes -- they basically wait for the students to come up with answers, forcing them to actually, you know, generate and think.

And I think if there's one thing that cuts across all the different domains that I see is that focus on understanding what you're doing and very thoughtfully reflect, especially on what you just did, so you will be actually able to identify things that you need to correct, or improve, or think about ideas about how you can do things differently. So basically, that kind of understanding of the task that you're trying to improve upon, making that into a mental activity as opposed to something that, where you're just accumulating more and more experience, I think that's a very general theme that I see cutting across all these other domains where you see excellent performance.

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