What does practice make?

One of the striking points I took away from Anders Ericsson’s Peak is that he establishes a very clear distinction between knowledge and skills, with a strong preference for developing skills.  Towards the end of the book, he suggests that humanity may have mis-named itself — instead of homo sapiens, we ought to say that we are homo exercens.

(Faithful readers can find an obligatory classics-nerd quibble over the nomenclature at the end of this post).

Developing skills as opposed to simply having knowledge of a topic is clearly the approach we’d want to take in domains that have clear skill-based milestones and markers of achievement.  These include the domains explored in Peak — chess, violin, memory competitions.  They would also include foreign language and math, I think.  The techniques he describes are incredibly useful for developing expertise in these kinds of domains.

What they do not include is reading comprehension.  And here’s where it’s important to get our terms right.  When advocates make the case for knowledge-rich curriculum, it is inevitably met by those who counter that exploration and active learning are the most effective ways for students to grow.  And they have a point.  Wonder is the only beginning of the love of wisdom (this line from Plato’s Theatetus is often misquoted as “Wonder is the beginning of wisdom”).  That’s why knowledge-rich curriculum advocates should at the same time insist on methodologies that support inquiry, such as Socratic seminars and class discussions around “big questions.”  Wit & Wisdom’s ELA program is to be commended for incorporating these practices very thoughtfully.

For math, it’s becoming clear that personalized learning platforms, which rely on purposeful practice algorithms, can really boost students’ basic math abilities.  Incorporating well-designed programs that support students in their efforts to develop automaticity seems like a smart move for most schools.  I hypothesize that it will result in more students feeling confident enough to pursue higher math and science.

The same kind of approach can be used for developing some basic skills in foreign languages, where vocabulary knowledge is a steep obstacle for students seeking to read a text or express an idea.  Gabriel Wyner has done some amazing work showing how it can be overcome through using digital flashcard platforms like Anki that use research-based review/repetition models to ensure full mastery.  Speaking and writing fluently are different matters – they are not something you can achieve through flashcards alone.  Having a fluent speaker/writer of the target language to give you deliberate practice using the vocabulary you’ve built is crucial.  Duolingo is great for vocab-building, and is really starting to build out its capabilities for supporting conversations with native speakers.

But it’s simply a categorical error to argue that reading comprehension can be effectively taught in the same way.  Decoding, yes – Direct Instruction in phonics is pretty much as skills-based as you can possibly get, and it works.

If you’re interested in the research supporting the claim that reading comprehension is not a “skill,” my former boss, Jason Caros, does a really good job summarizing it here.

As promised, I’d like to go back to the distinction Ericsson draws between homo sapiens and homo exercens for a moment.

From Peak, p. 258:

The small issue I take here is that “knowing” is an inadequate translation of sapiens.  That could have been covered with sciensSapiens is from the verb sapio, the original meaning of which was to have a taste for, savor.  Savor is itself a derivative, as is the Spanish sabor.  It’s the root of the word sapientia, which the Romans used to translate σοφία.

The Latin language associated the idea of wisdom with having a taste for something.  I really like that.  To me, having a taste for something really does capture something essential about the characteristic of wisdom.  A wise person has something that we used to call discernment.  It’s more than just knowing something.

You build up a taste for something by repeated exposure and reflection, by talking about it with others who appreciate the same thing, and seeking to experience the best manifestations of that thing.

Perhaps the origin of sapiens is a useful reminder that wisdom emerges from a broad range of areas (domains) in which we have, if not mastery, at least facility.

Keeping a clear the distinction between what we can learn to do via skill-building and what we can discern via knowledge-building is essential in debates about approaches to literacy.  We need both modes, and I’m grateful that there are researchers like Ericsson out there showing us the way to increase our human potential through purposeful and deliberate practice.

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