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Are you a generalist or a specialist?

Updated: Apr 3, 2021

In 2021, we live in a world where degrees and courses offered to students is becoming increasing micro-specialised (we know of Diploma in Freight and Customs, Bachelor in Event Management). Yet, let's go back a generation and the basic degrees might have been in Science, Arts, Commerce and Engineering. Now there degrees are broken dow such as a Computer Science degree might be a specific degree in Networking or Cyber Security (the case in universities e.g. here)

In this world where part of our job is to 'train the workforce' (we may not totally agree but that is the practical role of teachers funded by the state). What is the role of the teacher and the career advice to give to students and indeed to consider our own careers? Is it better to specialise or not?

Well, a recent book called 'Range: How Generalists Triumph in Specialized World : David Epstein' makes the arguments for generalists i.e. "range" implying a broad range of thinking and experiences that help solve specific problems. He provides a quote of the degree to which society and particularly higher education has responded to the broadening of the mind by "pushing" specialisation rather than focussing on early training on conceptual, transferable knowledge.

Epstein provides plenty of examples (including in sports) of people who were influenced by ideas , events and thoughts completely outside their eventual area of speciality leading to them solving problems or becoming 'greats'. Examples of these were the inventor of Nintendo Game & Watch, Steve Jobs (he added lots of fonts in the first Apple as he liked calligraphy), Roger Federer (who started late and played many sports). It is a compelling case and worth a read.

For teachers he focusses on making it too "fast and easy" for kids when it is normal to provide quick answers. There is a tendency to provide comfort to kids to not have them confused. He writes on something called 'desirable difficulties" - obstacles that make learning more challenging, slower and more frustrating in the short term, but better in the long term. Too much hint giving say in Grade 9 maths might improve short term performance but doesn't help performance in the long run. There is a term of "generation effect" that a student should generate an answer of their own even a wrong one - it helps improve learning in the long run. It requires the learner to sacrifice short term performance for long term benefit. This is opposite to what is being done typically when we teach but science suggests the opposite!

Here is an article from New York times reviewing the book. It may convince you to read the book but, if nothing an example of a book review for your English students to analyse or even surmise what the book and indeed the review might be about. Picking up on the style and tone and Americanism for instance or just to imagine what the arguments they could make themselves. How about organising a debate in class about this or indeed a research project event ?

We hope it inspires you to "think different" as Apple computers advertisement of the 1990s used to say.

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