Interleaving on a Jet Plane

This might be the darkest time of year, but I am positively romping through my TBR pile. Death at Brighton Pavilion by Ashley Granger (treated myself!), The Punishment She Deserves (present from a buddy), Life Undercover (ain’t Christmas wonderful?), and… Range–Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, by Daniel Epstein.

In Range, one question Epstein explores is whether we learn more when we cram on one topic (or one type of problem), or when we nosh around, take breaks, mix it up, and combine topics. On the micro-level, do we learn geometry more effectively if we focus exclusively on right triangles, then on parallelograms? Or should we mash them up, avoiding the drill-drill-drill approach?

My intuitive answer was, “It depends on the learner and the topic.” Turns out, I’m mostly wrong. There are doubtless some limited areas that benefit from a drill-drill–drill approach, but what those clever educational research types figured out was, we acquire new skills and information more slowly when we’re rotating through different kinds of material and taking breaks, and that can feel less satisfying at the time, but we’re acquiring another skill that is tremendously valuable.

When we interleave topics or sub-categories within a subject, we learn to figure out what kind of problem has come up in the rotation. We learn to spot, “Oh, this a right triangle with a missing hypotenuse problem,” versus, “This is a rhombus, which means a square AND a right triangle…” When we avoid focusing narrowly on one skill at at time, we learn to approach problems and challenges with our analytical Klieg lights on. When we hammer stoutly on the same material until we can recite it by heart, we barely keep the analytical parking lights burning. This is part of the explanation for why people who take consumer math in high school (or life skills), tend to be less able to crank through a tax return than people who took Algebra II. The consumer math class presented the material on a platter, clearly identified as “Tax Returns 101,” while the algebra student ferrets out the method with skills honed through a lot of general ferreting with numbers.

Women are, in my humble, primed by experience to be good problem analyzers, because we are virtuoso interleavers (says me). We bounce all day between roles as spouses, children, friends, household managers, parents, supervisors, coworkers, neighbors, congregants, professional experts, and more. Most of us are probably called upon hourly to solve some sort of problem, and we have learned, instinctively, to ask: What is the real issue here?

We don’t assume it’s a project budget problem because it comes up at a project budget meeting, for example. We keep an eye out for the professional jealousy issue masquerading as a budget problem, or the interdepartmental politics parading around as the new training program. For us, life is an obstacle course, not the 220 low hurdles, and we are more nimble and faster over uneven terrain as a result.

And this is ironic, because the very factors that tend to hold women back professionally–interrupting a career for the sake of child-rearing, sacrificing advancement (moving) to accommodate a spouse’s career trajectory, taking on elder care management in the face of workaholic office cultures–means that in all spheres we are likely to be better at analyzing problems and thus, solving them, while we are penalized for the very variety of life roles that characterizes much of our gender.

My hope is that as gender roles become more equitable and fluid, the problem-solving edge that women enjoy–by virtue of wearing many hats in the course of a day, and in the course of a working life–will be more appreciated, and we’ll all be better off as a result. What’s your take? Is there a gender-advantage when it comes to problem-solving in your experience? Do you prefer to drill a skill or nosh away at new material. I’ll add the names of three commenters, to my e-ARC list for a A Woman of True Honor (comes out Feb. 8 from the web store, Feb. 18 on the major retailers).


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30 comments on “Interleaving on a Jet Plane

  1. Do I drill or do I nosh? It depends but I think my main way of problem solving is to *step away*.

    I step away, OFTEN, to gain perspective or let the problem percolate or let my mind heal from a particularly tough problem before tackling. Your idea that women ask “what’s the real issue” type questions when trying to solve a problem is a good one. We instinctively ask that question. Often, the answer comes quickly due to experience or situation but when it doesn’t, stepping back for some perspective helps.

    I write a weekly blog for my professional society’s website about something I call *Choral Ethics*–essentially I’m *Dear Abby* for choral directors. I believe it is not the music which is the problem when folks have issues but everything else, especially interpersonal relationships. It was put perfectly for me last month by a stranger; I was in a elevator and I couldn’t remember the floor of the music store I wanted to go to. A man with a violin came on the elevator, I asked him the floor, he told me and asked if I was a musician. He asked me what I play, I told him I’m a choral conductor and he said *oh, you play politics* PERFECTLY stated!

    And all those skills I’ve learned from parenting, being a wife, mother, daughter and sister inform how I handle problems.

    Stay warm, Grace. It’s cold today in the Midwest!

    • It’s kinda chipper here in Maryland, though not like it used to get. Hats off to you for not only tackling the problems of your own choir, but providing a sympathetic ear to other directors similarly situated. Anytime people are donating their time, effort, venue, and so forth, it gets sticky.
      I step away often too, ESPECIALLY with book problems. My mom used to say, “Never make decisions when you’re tired…” but it’s also true that flailing away at a stuck book never got that book unstuck. Walk away… and live to write another day.

  2. When I was a schoolgirl many years ago the school report I took home for my parents to see always stated on most subjects the term average.Average at most things was my tag for most of my young life.Pretty but average was the score given by lads on my looks when dating and so on.Average at this and that___then one day something woke this woman up___A very significant event opens up survival and fight.I can do better than this.At the age of fifty I opened my mind and took the world in .I embraced New experiences,read many books,fell flat on my face a few times,got up and started again.Now at seventy two I’m still learning and being surprised I can retain a lot of it.So for me it was not skill or drill just life.Nosh away most of the time But never give up.

    • I forget where I came across the thread, but somebody pointed out that the “wunderkind” notion of success–hitting it big early–is almost exclusively a male tale. Women tend to hit their stride later in life–well, duh–and I fall into that pattern. I landed my first publishing contract at age 50–maybe it’s a wake up year?

  3. I did actually double majors in computer science and mathematics. I always found that mixing it up helped. I’d read history in between practicing mathematics. I say practising because that is how you learn mathematics. Proofs were my least favorite, but I eventually learned that the first thing you do is to figure out what would make the proof true and then figure out how to get there. A little bit of working backwards.

    I hate to say this, but I’m still not a people person except for a select few. With most people, the bedrock seems to be self interest.

    • I did a bachelor of music in music history and a bachelor of arts in political science. I wanted to pick up a degree in folklore but… maybe some day. I hope I never stop learning, but I doubt I could EVER tackle higher math or its engineering applications.
      As for human nature… I am pretty optimistic. We are catching onto how wickedly skewed our dialogue becomes on social media, and taking a step back from it as a result. Once we recover from that bruise, I hope it’s onward and upward.

      • I hope you are right, although I think quite a few poeple will always love that skewed dialogue as it reinforces their prejudices.

        I love being able to stay in contact with relatives and friends I went to school with k-12 or college, who live far away, but sometimes I think the price may not be worth the benefit. I can’t believe the downright lies that decent people pass around without fact checking. Quite a few of my posts to them begin with “ is your friend’. Except about Bigfoot for one of my college friends who firmly believes that Bigfoot exists.

  4. I definitely think women are better at interleafing our actions and accomplishments. How interesting that this affects our learning!
    I find that I am less able to multitask now that I am perimenopausal, which is so frustrating to me because I’ve always been so good at it, and to lose that skill is disconcerting and debilitating. Sigh. hopefully it will come back once my hormones settle down to a new normal.
    The day when women are equally valued as men is sorely needed, in my opinion. But honestly? I don’t think that day will ever arrive in the U.S. Boo.

    • Welp, I don’t think that day will come in my lifetime, but I’m getting pretty venerable. I do think we’re poised to slingshot forward, in part because young men are getting woke to how the entrenched system doesn’t work for most of them either, and also because the planet is at risk. A common challenge tends to level playing fields–and it’s a huge common challenge.
      Meanwhile, I have hopeful books to read.

  5. Happy Sunday! I like to learn and ponder different ways and consider and weigh different options. Since I care for my mother, there is always much to juggle and balance. Schedules, appointments, sudden needs, unexpected events and unplanned developments. Sometimes it works out and other times it is very challenging. Thank you for your great books! Have a blessed day!

  6. I have found that stepping away from a nagging problem allows me to return to it with a clearer mind and more often than not, the answer is right in front of me.

  7. I guess I am a nosher. I feel significantly lower joy in learning if drills are involved so I am glad to hear it is also not effective.

    In my experience, women have the advantage in problem solving. Whether this stems from actual biological differences or being forced to juggle and creative problem solve as caretakers etc., I don’t know. My husband has the unfortunate habit of forcing a solution on a situation that it already isn’t working in. “Surely if I just push harder” seems to be the non-logic involved. I am a take-a-step-back and look from more angles or clear my head and come back to it later, problem solver and I am going to go ahead and call it an asset to the marriage. Next time he comments negatively on my half dozen or so currently being read pile, I will explain I am just interleaving.

  8. I’m afraid I’m “one track Nellie” in that I focus on one thing to the exclusion of everything else. If I’m interrupted, I get an almost physical “thunk” as my brain strips its gears. Then it takes me ages to get back into the flow. That Do Not Disturb function on my electronics was the best thing to happen to me.

  9. First, thanks for being a Wonderfully multifaceted gem. Your books have spoiled me. They are meaty and long enough to enjoy for hours of reading unexpected twists and turns with depth. Ok, sometimes your books don’t take as many nights because I keep reading but what a way to go.

    You are right. Interleaving makes a huge difference in problem solving. One of my gifts in working with idea people is that I’m curious and want to know more about what seems on the surface to be related as well as how might some other seemingly unrelated be added to the mix to improve it. And life long learning and having asked from a young age – how does it work – and realizing that everyone has gifts and something to contribute and will when it is safe to do so. That this is more often found in women confuses and perhaps intimidates men who mostly don’t have the multi and inter weave gift. Look forward to being respected rather than penalized.

  10. I like to dive in and learn things asI go, much different than my engineer husband who plots and plans and lays out his course. I’m a trial and error sort, learning from ky mistakes as I go. Would love an ARC

  11. I have a degree in English and my teaching certificate. I never taught.
    Some how I ended up in the mutual fund industry. I am ok in math- but it’s not my favorite.
    I multi task at work- problem solving, listening and figuring out exception processing. It makes for a busy day.
    I am learning a new product in addition to my regular work and it’s a bit overwhelming. I am focusing on learning one transaction type at time- less stressful. Pretty soon I will have this mastered & will weave it into my routine!

    Have a great week—0stay warm.

  12. I definitely feel like you need some of both. I’ve been learning Polish in Duolingo and Drops, and it drives me crazy that they don’t have a drill mode for verb conjugations. I need that structure sometimes.

    I’m also a Geometry teacher. We do a lot of what we call scaffolding, but there’s a place for drilling. I feel like you need to drill a little bit to begin with, then interleave it for mastery.

    I also think the tax example is flawed. Correlation does not necessarily imply causation. Taxes aren’t mathematically hard, they’re just tedious. A 6th grader could do it, if you take away the stress of it. The problem is that people who opt out of the harder math track are the people who think they can’t do math and are too intimidated by it to try.

  13. I read someplace long ago that women emotionally and mentally are like a dish of spaghetti. Every thing is twisted together but it all is identifiable individual strands. Men are like waffles. Each little square contains its own butter, jam or syrup. No multiplayers here. Their focus is great for becoming an overachiever or workaholic. Women can deal with a lot of things at one time, but it can slow your progress down.

  14. I find this post really interesting as an educator. I am going to have to think about it more. I do note that men seem to jump in on what they think the problem is, whereas women might let things sit a moment and figure out what the real issue is behind the problem.

    On a side note, I just read “Love and Other Perils” and just loved it so much. I cannot wait to read your next book!

  15. I don’t know about interleaving things but I do know I learn things easier by reading instructions, seeing pictures or drawings of what I should be doing, and trying to do it myself. I believe a good bit of my problem with learning to use my smart phone, Kindle, and laptop is that there are no printed instructions for any of them. Of course sometimes even with such instructions I’m lost. I know when I purchased a new pedometer I had to ask my nutritionist to set it for me. It took her about 30 seconds in all.

  16. Like Suzanne I feel there is a bit of a need for both drill and noshing around. My daughter is an accountant although not a tax accountant, but says that taxes are addition and subtraction. In her course the problem solving came with knowing which amounts to add and which to subtract. Drill was necessary to learn to complete that addition and subtraction accurately in a certain amount of time. The time and ease, for me, takes drill or experience, whether it’s spelling, cooking, driving… I do think women have a lot more experience with a certain sort of problem solving, but I couldn’t say if any one gender was better at it.

    And I’m saving Death in Brighton Pavilion together with your new one for a vacation mid-February to somewhere warm.

  17. If it’s something I like, I’ll focus on it to the exclusion of everything else. If it’s tedious,I become ADD and flit off to another project. I might have 2 afghans on the book now, but I’m already planning a third in my head.
    Thanks for the giveaway!

  18. Women are under more stictures than men are so they have to take many different avenues to problem solvi g. We cant just run in and bludgeon it to death till it turns out right.

  19. Women’s ability to juggle so many tasks at once is why, even in households where husbands contribute to the chores, women are the ones who organize and direct the tasks. That “emotional burden” weighs one down!

  20. As a librarian, I’ve realized that you can’t read it all or know it all. You can have some specialties – but after awhile – you just need good hunting skills that can bring up that other knowledge that you don’t know about. (A computer and the internet help too.) And you need to do this while answer in phones – telling kids not to run through the library, and while the other hone is ringing. Every day is a bit like triage.

  21. I think women are better problem solvers because we don’t set out JUST to fix the problem. We are able to look at it from several angles and often find numerous solutions. While it is not always my favorite thing, I learn better drilling a skill…over and over and over again. I admire those that can just approach a new skill, see it done and walk away with it under their belts.

    • Lisa, my husband recently pointed out that Jesus didn’t fix people, he healed them. Numerous solutions may help get to the root of the problem, which may mean it doesn’t need fixing again. I like your approach.

  22. Women definitely have the advantage in solving problems. My husband is incredibly intelligent and I leave it to him to fix things because he can methodically work through something step-by-step, but he isn’t a big picture person. He doesn’t ask why. He isn’t good at getting to the root of issues. And he doesn’t think personalities are significant, whereas motivation is my biggest concern. He is also convinced that a person can’t actually multitask. Really, he just can’t multitask. I am pretty sure women do that out of the womb.