Acquire the eye of the expert!

In the beginning, a pupil who is learning to read tracks down, word by word, slowly and laboriously, the possible mistakes in a text. A few months or years later, he reads the text and says to himself: “Hey, there is something wrong somewhere. And by searching a little, he finally found the error and corrected it. From a feeling. What a fabulous weapon to progress!

This weapon is what is called an “expert eye”. And the whole thing is to know how to develop it. How to do it ?

Our brain analyzes things from the simplest to the most complex. In one of its areas called the “primary visual area”, it has neurons responsible for analyzing what we see and which are divided into two types of nerve cells: simple and complex. The first act as small detectors of elementary stimuli, like a vertical light bar crossing a very small part of the visual field from left to right, for example. Complex cells, on the other hand, are sensitive to slightly more elaborate configurations, such as particular arrangements of what simple cells detect (for example, a vertical light bar at a specific location in the visual field OR slightly offset). To simplify, one can imagine that a simple cell detects “this” or “that”, whereas a complex cell detects “this AND that” or “this OR that”. By noting that an “L” corresponds to the particular arrangement of a vertical bar and a horizontal bar, it is easy to see that this principle of combination gradually makes it possible to build, within the visual system, detectors of targets of more and more complex – letters, words, even words whose characteristic is to be misspelled…

A sharpening sense

Knowing this fundamental functioning of our sensory systems will be very useful for instilling the famous “expert’s eye” in a student on the path of his learning – for example, to give him the ability to instinctively spot errors in a text or to “feel” that there is a problem before correcting it. This is also a bit like how some artificial intelligence algorithms work, which are able to recognize complex shapes: your face in a photo, for example. A complex detector, in such a program, thus considers the activities of many detectors sensitive to simple elements (always the same principle going from simple to complex) – the light intensity of a particular pixel of the image, for example – giving each a particular importance (weight). By repeating this principle of organization, we end up training detectors for more and more abstract things, like “your face”.

Acquiring an expert “eye” is nothing more than a particular way of paying attention – in fact, it is about creating new attentional “targets”.

The brain of the expert also has very sophisticated detectors for elements that the novice does not know how to notice. If he pays attention to it, then he notices that something needs to be corrected or stabilized at this level. This is how a professional pianist changes something in his playing if he notices that “his interpretation does not communicate the emotion he would like”. If he realizes this, it is because he has very special detectors that have appeared in his brain during his learning. Detectors whose sensitivity he increases if necessary in order to get them to react more strongly and more quickly to the slightest “problem”. And, from a certain level, the expert can count on an automatic detection of these imperfections to react to them immediately.

Surprise dictation for the brain

In class, it is thanks to the acquisition of complex detectors that a student ends up being able to detect at first glance a spelling error or a calculation error: his gaze suddenly stops on a word because he “feels” that something is wrong. And even before reaching this level of mastery, he can already increase the sensitivity of his error detector: for him this corresponds to “rereading himself while paying attention to the spelling of the text”, which is different from “reading proofread, taking care of the heaviness of style”. And it is also this ability to pay attention to high-level elements that allows the science preparation student to immediately recognize in a statement of physics, a “type” of exercise that is familiar to him.

A special feeling

The acquisition of new complex targets first results in a feeling that is not always easy to verbalize: “This word is written oddly”, “This wording is strange”… This is when the student begins to grasp a difference between two objects, two situations. Then by continuing the learning process, the difference becomes more and more clear and the sensation more and more characteristic. He begins to acquire an expert “eye”, which is nothing more than a particular way of pay attention. This development of his sensitivity is accompanied or not by the parallel acquisition of new ways of acting, also expert, to correct what is wrong. But the example of certain great music lovers shows that one can have a great finesse of listening and notice subtle imperfections in an interpretation – and therefore have an expert ear – without knowing how to play oneself in the way that the we would like.

If you take a few moments to think about an activity you’ve been doing for a long time and are good at, I’m sure you’ll find that you, too, are paying attention to perceptions that aren’t easy to describe – let alone do. understand – to a neophyte. A world-class badminton player told me that she sometimes felt the presence of the net the way you discern the proximity of the canvas when you close your eyes in a tent. When she could focus on that very clear sensation – the physical presence of the net, felt in her body – sending the shuttlecock to the other side without making a mistake felt as easy as turning her head around to touch his neck. But how to develop this form of attention in a beginner player?

supervised learning techniques

The teacher, who has the ability to perceive what his student does not yet perceive, has the role of helping him find these new attentional targets. This is why, with my colleagues, I am now implementing these principles within teaching itself, through my educational program Atole (ATattempts to schoolOLE). With a crucial question: how can the teacher indicate to the pupil targets that he cannot yet perceive or recognize?

In the field of AI, the emergence of complex target detectors is generally the result of a supervised learning phase, during which the algorithms must categorize a large number of examples with or without the characteristic to be detected, and learn from it. result until reaching a high rate of discrimination. Even though supervised learning in the field of AI is very different from learning mechanisms in humans (the latter needs much less training data than a machine to recognize complex shapes), this technique is reminiscent of a common practice in schools consisting of asking students what distinguishes two groups of objects, in order to bring out a differentiating concept: for example, the concept of mass to distinguish between light and heavy objects. The accumulation of examples therefore seems to be an effective approach, sometimes supplemented by clues concerning what to pay more specific attention to. For example, to develop the ability to perceive the lightness of a style of writing (a complex target), one could imagine asking students to classify texts into two groups (“heavy” or “light”), suggesting that they pay attention to the possible accumulation of adjectives…

Towards an intuitive but learned approach

Another example: sorting waste. In sixth grade, some teachers teach their students how to classify waste according to whether it is recyclable or not. This involves a series of examples and explicit criteria (cardboard, glass, etc.). But after a while, students (and adults) no longer go through this explicit and almost algorithmic phase (is it cardboard [oui/non] ? If not, is it glass [oui/non] ? Etc.) and instead adopt an intuitive classification method, which allows them to immediately recognize if the waste is recyclable, except in a few ambiguous cases. In this sense, they “make themselves sensitive” during this classification task to distinctive global characteristics: what corresponds to a complex target. This pedagogical approach takes direct advantage of the capacities of our complex detectors to collect several simple pieces of information to lead to decision-making on complex objects: they must be educated!

We see in this example that learning involves an explicit formal explanation of the characteristics of recyclable waste, then a classification phase, which aims to accelerate the ability to distinguish waste. It is therefore the ability to quickly categorize and recognize the type of object in question, without hesitation, which tells the teacher that the complex target has been acquired and can be used. On the other hand, it will no doubt be difficult for the pupils to verbalize precisely what enabled them, at first glance, to decide (and therefore what they paid more specific attention to). But this is not the most important, and teachers will not necessarily benefit from requiring their students to explain each time how they arrived at this decision.

This knowledge of neuroscience can serve as a useful guide for teachers who want to instill a new capacity for complex judgment in their students. One of them, which is particularly useful, is the ability to realize if you are going “off topic”, for example on a French essay. How many students master their lesson well, as well as writing techniques, but find it difficult to detect when they are straying from what is asked… The brain’s ability to develop complex targets suggests that it would be useful, to refine their perception of the thing, to present them with a set of dissertations accompanied by their subject, and to ask them to classify these according to the criterion “off subject” or not, by not being interested in anything else , so that their sensitivity is fixed on this dimension.

There are therefore many techniques to promote the development of complex attentional targets for the brain, and to acquire this famous expert eye, essential for reaching levels of excellence. They are often based on the idea that our brain does not initially have the capacity to apprehend certain complex stimuli, and that it only becomes sensitive to them by being gradually guided towards these new patterns. The development of specialized detectors involves a more or less significant local reconfiguration of the brain. The best example is that of the region dedicated to the detection and analysis of character strings and words, at the base of the temporal lobe – the “visual word recognition area” – which develops with the acquisition of reading in a few months. It therefore takes time to develop this expert eye, but the game is worth the effort, because to deepen an activity, whatever it is, is to acquire a new way of seeing the world, much more effective. : a real superpower!

Acquire the eye of the expert!