This week I stumbled across a fantastic article online written by a self-taught card counter (Steve Pavlina) who, when reflecting on the Blackjack table was able to draw upon some lessons for life. I read this article and it immediately resonated from an educational perspective too.
Steve begins the article by outlining his fascination with the game and went on to outline how he became an expert at beating the casino:
‘I bought a book on blackjack, learned the rules of the game, memorized the basic strategy, and then studied a simple +/- card counting system. It took a heck of a lot of practice and was tedious to learn, but I eventually felt comfortable with it…Between Vegas trips I studied blackjack and card counting ever more deeply. I read 10-12 books on the subject and mastered different counting systems (Thorpe, Uston, Revere, etc.). I practised advanced counting systems that keep a side-count of aces. I drilled myself until I could count down a deck of cards in under 14 seconds. I learned to vary the play of hands according to the count, memorized optimal strategies for different rule sets, and learned the subtleties of the game that would increase my edge even the slightest degree. We’re talking a total edge of maybe 1%.’
Steve made some observations whilst playing. Below I have attempted to make sense of these through an education lens.
1. Novices will make correct decisions most of the time – It was observed that most of the time (80-90%), novices would make the same decisions as an expert, but cumulatively that 10-20% they make incorrect decisions have a big impact on their losses.
In education, we may assume that learners are learning well if, in most cases, they answer questions correctly, or produce a lot of work. Aside from these being generally poor proxies for learning (Coe, 2014), learners themselves may also believe that they’re doing well; mistaking their ability as superior to what it is (the Dunning-Kruger effect). This is dangerous because it’s the bits they may be getting wrong that cumulatively have a considerable impact on future learning (the 10-20%). Taking even the smallest misconception forward could make future learning less clear and more difficult.
For example, upon taking students into my Biology class, I have found many to arrive with the belief that all arteries carry oxygenated blood. Whilst in the vast majority of instances this is correct, it is a misconception that could cause confusion when later learning about pulmonary circulation, where in fact the pulmonary artery carries deoxygenated blood. The misconception should be corrected to ‘arteries carry blood away from the heart’, thus removing the confusion about oxygenated/deoxygenated blood. So what I’m getting at here is that we as teachers are supporting our learners’ development from novices to experts by not making assumptions about learning (as a result of insufficient assessment) and not allowing misconceptions to leave our classrooms.
2. Novices miss golden opportunities – It was observed that novices lost more money on the blackjack table due to a lack of understanding about when to gamble more and when to go bust; instead they tended to play it safe. Experts on the other hand would go bust more often and gamble high when the time was right. They used their knowledge of the odds to their advantage.
Daley found in her research of novice and expert learning that novices are ‘scared to death [and] terrified of making mistakes’, and that they want to be told what it is they needed to know in their learning. They are risk averse and as such don’t like to put themselves in positions where they may make a mistake. On the other hand, experts adopted a more constructivist approach to their learning, assimilating new information with old through experience, and because of a solid base of prior knowledge they were more inclined to know when to make calculated risks (or take golden opportunities). This is why it is essential that there is sufficient hand holding and teacher led instruction to ensure that the learner is provided with the key knowledge that they need, in order to develop into experts. Effective scaffolding should be slowly removed over a series of weeks/months to enable learners to become less dependent on the teacher and support their transition towards being an expert.
3. Novices don’t put in the time to fully understand the game – Novices don’t take the time to master the basics, whereas experts put in hours of practice and understand the basics and the more nuanced elements of the game.
Deliberate practice is crucial to becoming an expert according to Ericson et al who states that ‘many characteristics once believed to reflect innate talent are actually the result of intense practice’. Many novices (myself included) may be subject to the Dunning-Kruger effect so are misinformed and feel that they may not need the practice to master something. Our duty as teachers is to not only provide time to practise, but also encourage learners to understand the benefits of doing so (more on this below).
4. Experts are more disciplined – Experts tend to be more consistent in making decisions and taking action. Experts understand that you can make the correct decision and still lose, but they focus on making correct decisions, not on trying to force a particular outcome
In his book, David Didau (2015) informs us that ‘we are predisposed to examine the surface structure of a problem rather than recognising that its underlying deep structure is the same as something we already know’. In essence, when approached with a new problem, unless we are an expert, we are less likely to make links with existing knowledge and prior experiences to solve a problem. Novices simply don’t have sufficient information to draw upon and so can’t make informed decisions, thus focusing on the detail, whereas experts are more likely to focus on the structure of a problem and take a more consistent approach. For example, if given a maths problem to solve, the expert may think of similar problems they’ve faced and compare the structures to help them make sense of the information, whereas a novice may just try to tackle the problem without an idea of what they’re trying to find, or what the outcome might be. With this in mind, teachers need to be modelling explicitly how to approach problems making use of prior knowledge, before scaffolding problems for learners with support mechanisms that can be removed once experience is acquired.
5. Private victory precedes public victory – Experts spend a lot more time practising, which takes tremendous patience. Their real victories aren’t at the blackjack table, but in their homes practising.
As mentioned above, expert performances only arise through dedicated and deliberate practice. This according to Ericsson et al requires motivation and perseverance, which in itself is problematic, particularly if we want learners to engage in deliberate, directed practice outside of the classroom.
‘Deliberate practice is not inherently enjoyable and that individuals are motivated to engage in it by its instrumental value in improving performance. Hence, interested individuals need to be engaging in the activity and motivated to improve performance before they begin deliberate practice.’
So our role as educators is to establish an environment where learners focus on long term improvement through having a high self-efficacy for learning. To avoid learned helplessness and to encourage a high self-efficacy we should guide students towards success through modelling, scaffolding and giving sound feedback to help move them forward.
In summary, to support our learners from novice to expert we need to treat them as a novice initially and not as an expert. If we try to teach our novice learners to be scientists by giving them inquiry based science projects to complete, or treat them as hair stylists by placing them straight into a hair salon, they will act as novices (Kirschner et al). I believe, based upon what I have written (here, here and here) that the following approaches should be taken to support our learners to become experts:
- We are experts in the subject matter ourselves
- We plan the learning to maximise long term retention (distributed and interleaved practice)
- We model correct practice and chunk the learning to reduce cognitive load
- We scaffold difficult concepts to enable learners to more easily understand, before slowly removing the support mechanisms to allow greater independence
- We provide regular opportunities for retrieval practice
- We provide learners with sufficient time and space to practise, hone their skills and take necessary risks
- We support the transfer of knowledge and skills within the subject through well planned and scaffolded activities.
- We conduct regular checks on all learners’ understanding which goes beyond that of superficial questioning/observation
- We provide task-oriented, rather than ego-oriented feedback in a timely and specific manner to move learning forward
- We involve learners in their own assessment and one another’s against clear success criteria
- We actively encourage learners to practise beyond the classroom through challenging homework that feeds into future lessons
Special thanks go to Oliver Caviglioli for his brilliant visuals to support the text.