Reflections on Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World

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I just finished Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, by David Epstein, and it’s got me thinking about a lot of things.

The book is about a lot of things. It deals with chess, athletes, musicians, artists, and scientists. The overarching premise – as you might discern from the title – is that it’s not good to be overly specialized.

The book begins with an example of ultra specialization – Tiger Woods. Tiger started training to be a golfer as a child, and that specialization paid off. The rest of the book tries to knocks away at the story we tell ourselves that getting a head start and being ultra specialized is a good thing.

There’s also an angle to the book that deals with education. One chapter takes education as its main topic, and throughout the book there are references to the way we educate and train people. And that’s what’s got me thinking about social studies education and civics.

How Outcomes Drive the Over Specialization of Education

Our obsession with outcomes drives the over specialization of education. As a result, students often lack the breadth of knowledge and experience they need to be successful.

In K-12 education, this takes the form of high stakes testing. The main outcome is a test score – whether it’s the federally mandated test, a graduation requirement, or an SAT/ACT required for college admissions.

Education and education reform are driven by a need to increase these test scores. When students struggle on those tests, the curriculum gets narrowed to focus just on the discrete skills and facts they need to succeed. As a result, they might get higher test score in the short term. But they suffer in the long term.

Epstein cites some research in his book that is fascinating. It deals with college students in a calculus class. Professors that prepared students the best for the calculus exam – judged by students short term grades and by students’ perceptions of the class – did not prepare students for future classes. They did worse than the students who had “tougher” professors – who let them struggle and did not necessarily prepare them well for the exam.

In other words, you can teach students how to take a test and they will do well. When I was in college, I was an SAT tutor. I know how it works. But this is short sighted, and it’s just gaming the system. In the long run, you’re not prepared for what else is to come.

In higher ed, this takes the form of specialization of the curriculum. Early on, students pick a major. They want something that will help them get a job. And so they become outcome oriented to what majors are most connected to profitable careers.

Again, this might seem great. It gets them a head start on a career when they graduate. But often, they find it’s the wrong career. They also have a limited worldview, and they can’t draw on broad experiences to solve problems.

In the long term, this specialization is counterproductive. The long game calls for a broad education with a diverse array of topics – in other words a liberal arts education.

What Does This Mean for Civics Education?

So what does this means for civics education?

It brings to mind a few things.

First, it reinforces the importance of problem based and project based learning.

Projects like Project Citizen require students to integrate different types of knowledge to come to an outcome. Their project might require math or science knowledge. Or, they might need to do research and rely on their writing skills to explain things. In addition, the team based aspect of project based learning helps students reconcile different perspectives.

Second, it calls for more discussion and deliberation. And effective deliberation.

It’s dangerous to exist in an echo chamber, and students need to learn to discuss differing opinions. They need to examine evidence that challenges their worldview and really consider it. Things like Classroom Deliberations from C-SPAN are perfect for this.

Third, we need to abandon the idea of high stakes testing as a method of improving civics education. And if possible, we need to roll back all forms of testing.

Testing students on their discrete knowledge of civics facts is a good way to measure whether or not they’ve studied. You’ll know that they’ve studied the list of citizenship questions or whatever other content you provide. But it won’t help them be better citizens, and it will take time away from them developing the skills, experiences, and connections they need to be generalists.

What Did You Think About Range?

I loved Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, and I would highly recommend it.

Befitting the title, it resonates in a lot of different ways. I’ve always been something of a generalist – with many different passions, often switching between obsessions – and I think it has a lot to do with why I’m successful.

Specifically in an educational context, the book helped me reflect on a few ways that schools need to improve. But it’s about so much more than education.

What did you think about Range? If you’ve read it, drop a comment below and I’d love to hear.

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