Category Archives: Acuity

The Jaggedness Principle

Continuing a thread from here

Rose’s first principle of individually is the Jaggedness principle. This principle asserts that any complex physical or cognitive trait is a collection of multiple traits that can be measured individually and, crucially, any individual is likely to rate above average on some of the traits and below on others. Yet, we tend to look at such complex traits unidimensionally.

The example Rose leads with is big. He demonstrates that there is no definitive answer to the question of which of two men is bigger because big could mean height, weight, etc.

This isn’t a perfect example of the principle because big isn’t something that people really rank order. Intelligence might be a better example. We rank people by IQ or perceived intelligence assuming that intelligence is some monolithic thing and not a collection of jagged traits. We reduce people to a judgement rather than celebrate their internal diversity of skills and interests.

A shortcoming, perhaps, of jaggedness as a principle is that it is not fractal in nature. In other words, big might be a concept made up of multiple components, but the individual components themselves are not jagged. It’s certainly possible to order people by height.

I like the imagery of a jaggedness principle, though. It gives form to the recoil I feel when, as a leader of a team, I’m asked to reduce everyone in my team to a number or category.

Learning Athlete, Part 2: Temperature

I hate freezing cold classrooms.

One of the areas of improvement we are looking at is whether we can gain better control over temperature in classrooms in the hotels and other venues we hold classes. First, we had to ask, what is the optimal temperature range for learning?

The team assigned to this couldn’t find research specific to learning and classrooms, but they did find research on workplace productivity. This metastudy talks about how productivity drops two percent for every degree Celsius outside of 21 to 24 degrees Celsius (70 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit). That’s a little warmer than I expected.

Of course, the age and gender of participants matters.

Then I got schooled by the folks at RSM who work with the hotels. Apparently, it’s not that hotels aren’t aware that their rooms are too cold or too hot; they just have less control than we realize. The way the HVAC systems are set up makes it often impossible to make all of their classrooms comfortable at the same time.

We decided to focus our efforts on making sure site staff are equipped to address concerns as honestly and realistically as possible. It’s no good to tell conference participants that the hotel staff has been notified and is working on it if we know darn well that the situation won’t change. Making someone believe that change is coming if it isn’t is worse than just leveling with them.

Acknowledge their concerns. Be honest about what’s been done and the prospects (or lack of) for change. Offer to get them a hot cup of coffee to hold. But don’t imply that it will get better because that will distract them from learning when it doesn’t.

Learning Athlete, Part 1: Breaks

We put together some internal working teams at my firm to address some learning-related questions that are sometimes posed to us. One of the teams is focused on energy management. Intuitively, what we eat and drink and how we sleep and feel affects our ability to learn, but framing this in terms of “energy management” was new to me–an interesting frame*.

We are looking at several energy management topics. One of them is breaks. Are more shorter breaks better than fewer longer ones?

The individual assigned to this question came back unable to find empirical guidance. It doesn’t seem there is a definitive answer (though my intuition says more, shorter breaks is better for learning, though if asked I suspect more learners would choose fewer longer breaks [or fewer shorter breaks to end the class earlier] so they can use the time more effectively to check in with clients or respond to emails).

To her credit, she quickly focused on what can be done from an instructional design perspective to get participants to move around and/or mentally shift gears, which should offer a mental refocus, not unlike a break. Makes sense to me.

I wonder, though, if there isn’t guidance or inspiration we can take from best practices around breaks as it relates to workplace productivity.

*I recognize that the practical impact of energy management is probably swamped by quality of the instructors, relevance of the instruction, instructional design, etc. This is strictly all-else-being-equal territory.

Talent vs. Deliberate Practice

A few weeks ago when my mind was all abuzz about Peak, one really concrete and hopeful thought danced in my brain: deliberate practice trumps talent every time. In Peak, Anders Ericsson describes how inherent ability can give someone an early advantage because an activity comes a little easier at first, but the advantage goes away in favor of practice. As an example, he points to chess grandmasters. Grandmasters as a group have higher than average IQs, but there is no relationship between IQ and ranking within the class of grandmasters, suggesting IQ may be helpful for sticking with chess initially but the advantage is overwhelmed over time by deliberate practice.

Hambrick and Meinz have done‚Äč some pretty compelling research, though, that in at least one context, inherent ability is a predictor of success even controlling for time spent in deliberate practice. They studied the sight reading abilities of piano players and measured skill as a function both of time spent deliberately practicing and of working memory capacity.

And, indeed, piano players in the high working memory, low deliberate practice group nearly, though not quite, matched the performance of the low working memory, high deliberate practice group. On one level, deliberate practice did win out against ability, but inherent ability made a significant difference, and the advantage never faded, unlike Ericsson’s grandmaster example. Piano players with high working memory capacity were better sight readers than those with low working memory capacity but equivalent deliberate practice.

Clearly, there is more work to do to figure out how to reconcile the differing role of innate ability in chess and piano sight reading, but the good news is that deliberate practice still trumps ability.

But natural abilities matter, too, at least to varying extents. I’m reminded of The Success Equation, where Michael J. Mauboussin describes the role of skill versus luck in professional sports. Most professional sports have achieved over time greater parity among players, increasing the role of luck in winning. Not basketball, though. He theorizes that while most sports have benefited from ever increasing pools of players to choose from as recruiting goes international, in basketball the pool has remained artificially constrained because the average height keeps going up, raising the bar to entry. There just aren’t that many people in the world who are 6’8″. That’s a physical attribute rather than a cognitive one, but the point is there are sometimes elements beyond our control that do matter.

Deliberate practice always matters, though.

So Far

Let’s summarize. So far we’ve talked big picture about how people solve problems, then we dove into more detail on the component pieces of the model. How does a model like this help an instructional designer?


First off, having a model helps me organize my own thoughts and helps me explain them to others. And it’s helpful to create my own models because it forces me to organize my thoughts. It invites reflection, which is an important ingredient in learning. For me, the whole point of this web journal is my own professional reflection.

For me, some principles readily emerge from the model. First, not everything is a training problem. Especially when governing bodies are involved, it’s tempting to blame training if things aren’t being done correctly. More training! Better training! But is that the issue, or are there structural barriers that are getting in the way?

The second big principle is that it is important to be aware of the different types of knowledge that are important to solving problems (conceptual*, procedural, and social) and ensure they are being addressed somewhere. That doesn’t mean they all need to be addressed in the classroom or in formal learning at all, so long as they are accounted for. Be intentional on where learners are supposed to pick up each type of knowledge.

Third, experience is a vital component in solving complex problems. It can be acquired via instruction where it makes sense to do so. Just make sure that wherever your learners are acquiring experience, they have sufficient support and feedback.

Four, problem solving ability can’t really be taught in the abstract. Figure out as much as possible what your learner’s specific problems are and help them to solve those problems (and teach them why it works that way so they can generalize to new problems).

In the end, the key message is coherence. Be planful that your learners are getting the support, knowledge, strategies, and experience to succeed, and succeed they will.

* Such as why the USDA recommends you cook poultry to 165 degrees F even though none of the dangerous pathogens can survive much beyond 130 degrees. According to the wonderful Cooking for Geeks, cooking to a high temperature is a substitute for cooking the meat at 135 degrees long enough to ensure all the harmful microbes expire. In theory, you could safely cook poultry at 135 degrees as long as you cook it long enough at this temperature to ensure safety. This is the basis of sous vide cooking.


Do you know people who are just really great at solving complex problems, seemingly no matter the subject? The notion of intelligence is ill-defined, but it’s fair to say that natural variation and talent play a role in problem solving ability.

It’s also pretty clear that problem solving acuity is affected by more than raw talent. Fatigue and health can play a role, as does motivation, determination, and creativity. I’ve lumped all these factors together under the acuity umbrella.


Why lump all these things into one category? Largely it’s because of the three categories, it’s the one that usually matters least. If I, say, need help figuring out why my bread loaves are collapsing, and I know a food scientist who doesn’t do much baking, a frequent baker who learned by watching watching his or her parents but doesn’t really know why it works, and my brilliant friend who knows nothing about baking, my brilliant friend would not be the first one I call for help.

In fact, my impulse is to make the acuity circle smaller than the others, but really the relative sizes of the circles are probably variable. For instance, the more open-ended and gnarly the problem, the more the problem demands a creative, novel solution, the more acuity helps. In other words, acuity is, I think, relatively more important for the person charged with coming up for strategies for reducing the federal debt than it is for the person trying to figure out how to start a stubborn car on a bitterly cold day.

From a training perspective, that means when designing instruction I focus on knowledge and experience. Trying to make people generically better problem solvers is a poor investment compared to conveying useful knowledge and experience. The one exception here is motivation. It’s important for instruction to help learners understand why they should care about the problem enough to invest themselves in solving it.

I have actually been involved in a couple of projects that were intended to make learners better overall problem solvers. A long time ago I was involved in a computer-based project that tried to teach problem solving generically by dropping learners into a number of disparate problems and providing resources and coaching. It tried to build experience and confidence by showing the value of strategic thinking regardless of the situation. To the market’s credit, it recognized that problem solving ability can’t be taught generically and the product failed. (While the product was a commercial and instructional failure, I’ll note that I learned a great deal. I interacted with high level thinkers regarding problem solving and learned a lot about collaborating across cultures.)

At McGladrey, I currently have a small role in an effort to help auditors exercise greater professional judgment and become more critical thinkers. This project is being done in a partnership with several professors at BYU. At first, I was worried that this project would repeat the same mistakes of the failed product I was involved with all those years ago, but I think the project team has made some really smart decisions. While there is a generic professional judgment framework at the center of the model, the heart of the instruction focuses on several common biases that tend to cloud our judgment (such as anchoring) and makes a concerted effort to apply bias-clearing kung-fu to specific common and important auditing areas. This way, even if the auditors don’t generalize the problem solving strategies to all domains, they will still become better auditors, at least in the specific areas where they practice strategies for overcoming the bias. Smart.