April 16, 2008

Researcher to discuss intuition as learned behavior

by K.C. Jaehnig

CARBONDALE, Ill. — Seasoned soldiers, firefighters, paramedics and other fast-action experts often make seat-of-the-pants decisions based on gut feelings — decisions that later turn out to be right on the money. Peter J. Fadde, an assistant professor of curriculum and instruction at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, says rookies can learn to do the same thing.

"A lot of what's attributed to intuition was learned somewhere along the line," he says.

"Experience is part of the equation, but that alone isn't sufficient — other people with the same, or even more, experience might not come to the same conclusion. If we take what the experts make look easy and break it down into systematic steps, we can hasten the development of that 'intuitive' expertise."

Fadde, whose research focuses on training expert performance, will talk about "intuition" as learned behavior during a College of Education and Human Services Brown Bag Series seminar to be held from noon to 1 p.m. Tuesday, April 22, in Room 219 of Wham on the SIUC campus. Anyone may attend; light refreshments will be provided.

The "snap" decision actually involves the experts' ability to quickly recognize, assess and categorize patterns and then act— a concept called recognition-primed decision-making. Experts do this almost unconsciously; when asked, they often don't know why they did what they did — they just "had a feeling" or "felt that something wasn't right."

While experience may be the best teacher, some situations — military duty in Iraq comes to mind — don't offer newbies the luxury of learning time. How to speed up the progression from rookie to pro?

"What you do is train that recognition process through targeted drills," Fadde says.

"Drills" are just what you think: constant repetition of tasks — in this case, detection, categorization and prediction — that increase in difficulty as you move through the program, with immediate feedback to let you know how you're doing.

Fadde has used such training to help baseball and softball players improve their batting stats and to teach football linebackers how to read what's happening on the field. And he's done it all using fairly low-fidelity computer programs.

"It's always been assumed that you need a multi-million dollar, high-fidelity simulator as close to reality as possible to train advanced learners, but the athletes I've worked with are perfectly happy clicking a mouse," Fadde says.

"The low-fidelity approach works because it trains just the recognition part of the skill, separate from the action part. That's a lot cheaper and a lot easier — you can do it anywhere."

While Fadde's work with this kind of training has focused on sports, where he can monitor performance improvement easily, it has wider applications.

"Medicine, law enforcement, classroom teaching, social services interviewing — any area where there's a performance aspect," he says.

"A pre-service teacher, for instance, can be trained to recognize which student behaviors may escalate into disrupting the class and which can be ignored — the kind of intuitive expertise that many experienced teachers have.

"It's like weight training. Some people may have more 'intuition' than others. But we can take you at the level where you are and make you better. And if you work really hard, you may be able to surpass the person who appears to have more natural ability."