Tuesday, April 28, 2015

'Simple' vs 'complex' skills - need to be aware and able to categorise

A continuation on the question posed in the blog on importance of practice.

Neuropsychology paper reviewing learning of complex skills indicates the need to approach learning of complex and simple skills differently. Learning simple skills profits from an ‘increase in load’ whereas the learning of complex skills requires ‘reduction in load’.
Wulf, G., & Shea, C. H. (2002). Principles derived fromthe study of simple skills do not generalize to complex skill learning. Psychonomic Bulletin Review, 9(2), 185-211.
Almost 200 references! Most from lab based studies and around sports science.

Therefore, always important to sort out the ‘wheat from the chaff’ and ensure neuroscience and psychology findings are well substantiated before applying to practice.
Identification and classification of the range of skills relevant to each trade / occupation a starting point. Competency based standards provide a baseline to start from but need to remember many ‘tacit’ and difficult to explain aspects of practice may not have standards. A case of, if unable to describe, then also difficult to assess. So ‘ignore’ or subsume as unstated requirement, into another competency standard.

After skills identified and classified as ‘simple’ or ‘complex’, undertake to evaluate if undue pressure is placed during the learning of complex skills. One scenario I have some insight into is the preparation of junior chefs for the rigours of ‘a la carte’ cooking, especially in ‘fine dining’ restaurants. aka called line cooking in American parlance. TV reality programmes provide examples of how excessive pressure placed on ‘contestants’ lead to ‘filmable’ moments. Cooking ‘on the line’ (i.e. during a la carte service to satisfy the ‘pass’) requires the bringing together of a wide range of fine motor skills and application of many tacit refinements and understanding of kitchen ‘science’. See here for another viewpoint. Tasks and skills include (how much (or little) to season, how long to cook/steam/bake, what consistency required of a sauce, what plating arrangement works etc.). All undertaken while undergoing a barrage of orders from the head chef requiring the prioritization of a range of tasks, remembering which order has to go when, which is in preparation and any special requirements for orders.  

In many restaurants, learning how to work on the line is achieved through ‘learning by doing’. So, junior cooks work the line with the least complex requirements. Often starting with ‘cold kitchen’ where the food is precooked and the skill requirement is in the assembly of various items into salads or simple entrees. If a junior chef performs at the required level in the ‘cold kitchen’, promotion shifts the complexities up a notch. The junior chef may ‘second’ a more experience line cook, doing the base plating so the senior cook is able to place cooked items onto the prepared plate. Both ‘cold kitchen’ and base plating prepare the junior cook for the exacting specifications for ‘plating’ dishes to rigorous standards of neatness, symmetry etc. Importantly, they learn the dispositions required for implementing dishes to exacting standards. Craftsmanship approaches including attention to detail, judgement skills required to notice and correct deviations, persistence and on-going intrinsic motivation to ‘be the best.

Cooks have high ‘burn out’ rates with many young chefs leaving the industry after a decade or so of high pressure work. see this article for a case study - how chefs cope by becoming 'addicted' to the adrenaline of high pace work. No doubt there is some ‘buzz’ generated from the high pace work as cooks enter the ‘zone’ and are in ‘flow’. However for some, the long, unsocial hours and relatively poor pay, leads to eventual disengagement. Anecdotal evidence from young people aspiring to be chefs also indicate many left the industry because they were pushed into cooking roles too soon. Their preparation may have been incomplete during their initial training. Eventually, the pressures to perform continually and consistently at high levels caused some to decide the occupation as being too difficult.

Therefore, important to identify what is 'simple' and what is 'complex' in any occupation and also be aware of the other factors impinging on job performance. As with cheffing, it is not just knowing how to cook, but to be able to cook in a certain way within a specialised work culture. Expectations of 'craftsmanship' may be something to aspire to in all trades, but sometimes, craftsmanship - as with some of the examples in cooking, may become a generator of high stress and eventual burn out.

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