A Review of Range (Epstein, 2019)

I speak and write a lot about confirmation bias. I see it everywhere I go. It’s pervasive for individuals and it’s pervasive for businesses. In fact, in many cases it seems to be killing innovation, efficacy, and more.

I was recently asked to deliver a workshop for a long time friend of my dad. He’s a pastor at a church that is close to our house, so, I spent a few hours one morning discussing communication, learning, attention, engagement, and more. Along the way I told the assembled staff of ministers two things. First, they were getting it wrong. Most churches were getting it wrong. Most churches were doing only what they know to do, ignoring what people actually need in order to remember, learn, pay attention, and transform. Yes, the “fixes” would seem out of the box in comparison to hundreds of years of ‘bad’ norms, but if the right strategies were implemented, it could be a massive game changer for the church. Second, I offered to help them, free of charge, showcasing the neuroscience, research, and best practices on a regular basis.

I never heard back.

That’s not entirely true. I heard back from a few of the staff who were not in charge. They were excited and inspired to try some new things as they realized the old stuff really was not all that effective. But apparently I had overstepped with the head pastor. Perhaps because he did not want to know there was a better way (ignorance is bliss, after all) or perhaps because he was choosing to believe in his own experience over decades of research, my phone has not seen a call to date.

The underlying issue there may be confirmation bias. When a person or leader or organization or professor does not seek out what they are doing poorly and how to fix it, they are almost guaranteed to live via confirmation bias. At it’s worst, you’ll actually hear, “We’ve always done it this way, so therefore…” Sigh.

Now before I go too much farther, let me try to be transparent as I tell you now that I am constantly on the lookout for my own confirmation bias. I try very, very hard not to allow filter bubbles to permeate my media, looking at politically right as much as politically left, or seeking diet advice from keto to vegan and beyond. I read academic blogs from professors who seem to just be pontificating and insiders who question why the academy does just about everything.

I tell you all of this as it setup my fantastic surprise and confidence as I read the book, “Range” by David Epstein. Why? Mainly because of Chapter 4. But I digress.

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Range is a book by an award winning author and (past life) sports commentator, which actually comes out of his reporting around top athletes. Range is a trend analysis of sorts, with Mr. Epstein watching for years as the 10,000 hour rule (of Gladwell fame) did not seem to be the rule, but the exception. Due to a series of events, this led to some exceptional field research, almost that of a qualitative researcher, but one who finds and uses quantitative research as evidence. But the premise of the book is (like so many things) simple while difficult.

The grand idea of the book is that we (our culture) are making a mistake by pushing specialization too quickly and too often. It turns out, this kind of strategy for life (ours or others, including our kids) is likely detrimental far more often than it is helpful.

But the real problem lies in the idea that specialization is the norm, not the exception. We push kids to do everything faster, earlier, and to ensure deliberate practice from the first opportunity. Yet, 99 times out of 100, that is a mistake.

How can someone say that is a mistake? Isn’t that an opinion, you might wonder? Well, after you read through copious illustrations and examples and quantitative studies and experiments, you will be hard pressed to continue believing that it is an opinion. Yes, it is how our world currently operates, but it is not wise.

This leads to the one potential criticism I have for the work. The evidence is mountainous, and at times plays out like an argument ad naseum. I can hear my wife (who read the book simultaneously) saying, “Ok, I get it. The girls played every musical instrument around and were amazing. Get to the point or the next chapter!” (No offense to Austria.)

But overexposure to the evidence aside, let me get back to confirmation bias for a moment.

For years, I have traveled the world, at the start seeing first hand, and then eventually researching just how poorly educators architect learning. It is no longer controversial to say that professors rarely have any training regarding how to teach, nor is it wrong to say that volumes of evidence show that students are not learning. Yes, I constantly seek out evidence to the contrary, but the evidence is overwhelming at this point.

Which is why I was so excited when I got to Chapter 4 of Range. I happened upon this book from an unlikely source. I heard about it in an interview with an athlete. What he said simply peaked my interest, so I checked out the abstract and thought it sounded like a good, summer read. Not too heavy, kind of interesting (like Pink or Gladwell - both of whom recommend this book), and something I could listen to during a workout.

I was wrong.

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This book became a treasure trove of research to follow up on, of statistics to seek out, and of quotes to wrangle into my presentations. But things really got cooking when Chapter 4, on education, expertly and deftly described some of the major issues with teaching and learning, K-20. From teachers giving far too many hints, to architects of learning pushing fast and easy over the far more efficacious slow and hard, to forcing specialized topics too early and sticking with them too long, the chapter details much of what I have presented, written about, and hope to one day change throughout education.

But again, I felt as much joy in finding this independent analysis which came to the same conclusions I have, as anything. While this is happening more and more for me, it is rare to find such a clear, articulate, well-researched position about the problems in education.

I hope you will read this book. I wish that I had added it to our summer book list a few weeks back, but I was only halfway through at the time. If nothing else, head to your local Barnes and Noble and read through Chapter 4. I think you’ll end up purchasing the book at that point. (Especially as the next chapter details how to change our thinking, which any professor worth their salt will incorporate into their teaching…)

Good luck and good learning.

Jeff Borden