Learn how to think like an expert.
Sitting in the Washington apartment of psychologist Gary Klein, I learned to think a like a cop–or at least that was the goal. Over the past few years, Klein has been developing a learning program that aims to provide people with expert reasoning skills in fields like policing and social work—and he believes the effort will dramatically change the way that people learn.
I visited Klein’s home on a bright August afternoon, and my experience with his approach—called ShadowBox—began with a YouTube-like video that featured a police officer arguing with a young skateboarder.
“Give me the board,” the cop said.
But the teen clutched his skateboard with both hands like a toddler. “Can I have a reason, please?” the teen asked.
“Because you’ve been warned,” the cop said, now stepping closer to the young man. “Give me the board now.”
As part of the ShadowBox program, I was supposed to note every time that the cop escalated or deescalated the situation and then provide an explanation. No surprise, I flunked the assessment. I’m not a cop, after all, and I identified only one of the crucial moments, the one where the officer demanded the skateboard.
Even worse, I didn’t even notice other issues. The officer had put his hand on the young man’s skateboard, a sign of escalation. But the gesture was beyond my ken. I also didn’t make much of the fact that the officer pointed at the skateboarder, while policing experts believed that the gesture was unnecessarily aggressive.
The ShadowBox program aims to provide these sorts of realizations. As Klein argued on that August day, my insights were getting me to think more like a police officer. More exactly, what matters most for law enforcement professionals is the trust between the police and their community, and I was learning how a tense situation with a young man can be ramped up—or down.
In the field of psychology, Klein is well-known. Over the past two decades, he has showed pretty conclusively that expertise is often automatic, something that we don’t really think about, and Klein’s research in this area became the central idea of Malcolm Gladwell’s mega-seller Blink.
The ShadowBox program is an attempt to apply that academic research to learning, and as part of the program, Klein hopes to help people develop better thinking skills in an area of expertise by “unpacking tacit knowledge.” Klein offered to show me the program from his home office overlooking Connecticut Avenue, and I moved through the apprenticeship devoted to police work.
I had come across Klein’s work while I was researching my book on learning, and it turns out that a growing numbers of experts believe that schooling needs to do more to provide people with deeper reasoning abilities. Harvard economist Richard Murnane has written a lot about his idea, and he told me that people need “expert thinking skills” to succeed in the modern world of work.
In practical terms, this means that people need to know how to solve “unstructured problems.” If you’re a computer engineer, that means tackling technical issues not outlined in a technical manual. If you’re speech therapist, you need to understand a school kid with a not-easily-defined set of language challenges.
While Klein doesn’t offer his program directly to students, he argues that just about anyone can take a ShadowBox approach to learning. If someone is trying to gain a new skill, for instance, they should ask experts questions along the lines of: What were you thinking during this situation? What would have done if this happened? What would you have done if that happened?
For Klein, people can also develop expert thinking skills by reflecting back on a situation with a friend or partner. “If we can’t be smarter in hindsight, we can never be smarter,” he says. The key is to understand what exactly people were thinking during a situation and figure out ways to develop that thinking.
This helps explain, too, why ShadowBox has so much potential as a software program, according to Klein. It allows people to learn from the experience of experts, and at least for me, it helped me understand why I shouldn’t point at people if I wanted them to trust me.