Specialization's Limit - John C. Wunsch, P.C.
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Specialization’s Limit

Specialization of labor––surely this makes the most sense. Hire the most highly qualified people, train them in a particular specialty, and then have them carry out that single specialized task. This has been the conventional wisdom for decades, used in a variety of contexts. There would seem to be no downside to this perfectly rational way of thinking. For simple matters, it actually works quite well. But when things become a bit more complex, the effectiveness of specialization tends to break down.

Complexity. Someone who specializes understands their niche, but not necessarily other areas which tend to exert an influence. Ambiguity. Someone who specializes may come to regard ambiguity as disruptive, existing outside of recognized boundaries. Transience. Someone who specializes may fail to recognize how baseline conditions have changed, thus failing to respond and adapt accordingly. Inertia. Someone who specializes may become set in their ways, performing the same task in a rote manner.

In the field of education, conventional wisdom asserts that it makes sense to train teachers in particular specialties. Writing in the American Economic Review, Harvard economist Roland G. Fryer, Jr. casts doubt on this widely-held belief:

“But pupils are not pins, and the production of human capital is far more complex than assembling automobiles. Whether specialization can increase productivity in schools is an important open question in the design of primary and secondary schooling…Consistent with the main results in math and reading, teacher specialization seems to decrease student test scores…Empirically, I find that teacher specialization, if anything, decreases student achievement, decreases student attendance, and increases student behavioral problems… Future research might focus on whether specialization is differentially effective for schools with different baseline rates of specialization, and attempt to clarify the mechanisms behind the effects of specializing teachers in elementary schools. That said, these results provide a cautionary tale about the potential productivity benefits of the division of labor when applied to early human capital development.”1

Teacher specialization decreases student achievement––any number of reasons might explain this somewhat counterintuitive result. Perhaps the most basic insight is to recognize how education’s purpose is to increase the skill level of the student. That is to say, education should be student-focused, not teacher-focused. It’s not enough to have specialized teachers if other parts of the process are not designed to optimize learning. The article suggests one potential reason––“inefficient pedagogy due to having fewer interactions with each student”––but there’s a host of other contributing reasons as well; indeed, small libraries have identified and studied these.

It should not be surprising that specialization, in complex environments, tends to give rise to less than optimal results. Microcosm and macrocosm––both are required to be managed and mastered. Lawsuits are specialized undertakings, but are improved with a broad-based mindset and a more world-centered frame of reference. Take any particular task and ask: what matters most specifically, what matters most generally? At least then some effort is made to optimize both large and small. The holy grail of specialization has its limits––probably far more restrictive and confining than typically recognized. By specializing we are potentially limiting available areas of expertise––precisely when these other areas are needed most.

1 Fryer, Roland G Jr. 2018. “The “Pupil” Factory: Specialization and the Production of Human Capital in Schools.”American Economic Review, 108(3): 616-56.DOI: 10.1257/aer.20161495