The problem of 'wicked' learning environments

Rather than forcing pupils into specialised education early, we must give them the chance to sample, says David Epstein

Jon Severs

wicked learning

“We overvalue early specialisation and under-value generalisation,” states David Epstein.

That’s a criticism not just of the sports world that has been the focus of much of the journalist and writer's previous work, but the world in general – and that includes education.

Speaking on the latest episode of the Tes Podagogy podcast (you can listen on the player below or click here), Epstein explains how we have come to believe that success comes from deliberate practice in a single domain – so to become a world-class golfer, or scientist, or writer, we need to start practising that skill intensely from a very early age. And more broadly than that, we see expertise in any given subject or domain as the product of specific practice within that domain.

Listen to the podcast below:


This is all wrong, he says, because it is drawn from research into "kind" learning environments, whereas the vast majority of things we need to learn reside in "wicked" learning environments.

The problem of early specialisation in learning

“'Kind' learning environments are those where there are rules laid out, your next steps and goals are very clear, there are repetitive patterns, you get feedback that is quick and accurate – those are more amendable to specialisation,” he explains.

“When you move along to spectrum to so-called ‘wicked’ learning environments, next steps and goals may not be handed to you, rules may not be clear, patterns may not repeat and rules may change, feedback may be delayed or inaccurate. Here, specialised practice can backfire or make people inflexible.

“Our most famous examples [of the benefits of specialisation] come from the kindest learning environments you can imagine, like chess and golf. Golf is the epitome of a kind learning environment.

"The problem is that golf is a uniquely horrible model for most of the other things humans want to learn. So that we use golf and chess to extrapolate from is a real problem.”

You can watch the interview below

Epstein expands on these ideas at length in his book Range: how generalists triumph in a specialised world. His argument is that our rush to push children into specialisation actually has a detrimental impact on their long-term success both in that domain and in others.

He cites numerous studies that show that those who "sample" - ie, trying various different things across multiple domains – will start slower than their peers who specialise early, but that in any "wicked" learning environment, the samplers eventually overtake the "specialisers" and become much more successful, be that in sport or income or on other metrics.

Education, therefore, should provide a "sampling" model of learning, but it actually pushes increasing specialisation and prioritises short-term, specialisation interventions, Epstein says.

“Sometimes the things you can do to give you a rapid head start can actually undermine your long-term development. Particularly in education, we tend to be more orientated – for totally understandable and well-meaning reasons – towards interventions that produce results ‘now’…. But what we have found is that there is a fade-out effect. The way they get those results is by teaching closed skills, these are things that most kids will learn anyway, so the long-term effect fades out.”

Cross-curricular focus?

But would more cross-curricular work and less specialisation not come at a cost of domain-specific knowledge?

Epstein argues that disciplines are a human creation to make sense of the world, a "necessary evil", but that for us to function those silos need to be broken down. He adds that much of the specific knowledge we may need is now at our fingertips thanks to computers, and that we need to focus instead on teaching people “how to think”.

Success for our pupils depends on them being able to apply knowledge in an abstract way across domains, not be trapped within domains, he says.

“We all have to be able to learn from things we have not directly experienced, and facilitating abstract thought, transferring knowledge from something you have been directly involved in to something else, is the way we do that,” he explains.

Any notion that skills transfer across domains is impossible is, he argues, false.

“We all do transfer [of skills across domains] all the time. So it is a question of the degree of transfer. Transfer is difficult, far transfer is difficult, but there is no question it occurs and that it is possible.”

So education would do well to try and take more of a "sampling" approach, he argues, if we are to give students the best chance of enabling transfer to happen and for them to be successful in a world where transfer is essential to success.

“The more diverse the problems you face in training, the better will be your ability to take knowledge and apply it to situations you have never seen before,” he says. “If we are going to say transfer is not possible ,we may as well all give up.”

You can listen to the podcast below, or click here to find it on your own podcast player so you can subscribe. 



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Jon Severs

Jon Severs is the commissioning editor of Tes

Find me on Twitter @jon_severs

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