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).