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.

Recommended Reading

One of the best things about the Book It! program is that it encourages students to write down the books that they read on a monthly basis.

2nd Grade Books read 1
Erin’s November, 1986 Book List

I regret that I did not keep up that habit (note that I did have some help from Mom).  As the saying goes, the best time to start a good habit was 32 years ago, and the next best time is now.  So I thought I’d use this blog as a way to record what I’ve been reading on a semi-regular basis.  Please feel free to share ideas, thoughts, or recommendations based on what’s below.

Couple of additional notes – I’m a big fan of re-reading books, so I’ll make a note of when a book is on a second or third (or more) pass.  There are also some books (especially poetry/philosophy) that I like to dip into a little each day, as opposed to read cover-to-cover in several sittings.  Finally, some books I consume as Audible, others in written form, and others I do a little of both (especially using the fantastic WhisperSync technology).

Here’s my list from roughly September to now, in no particular order:

  • Atomic Habits, James Clear.  I found this book so useful and will be going back to it again and again.  The concept of making 1% improvements on a daily basis has motivated me to start habit-tracking using an app, so that I can see my “streaks.”  Right now, I’m using HabitBull, but it’s a little crash-prone.  If I find something better, I’ll share.
  • The Coddling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt.  The authors’ observations about the doctrine of “safety-ism” taking over American parenting, schooling, and childhood are spot-on.  I saw this phenomenon gaining strength as a middle and high school teacher from 2004 to 2014.  Each year, parents got more and more reactive to things like students receiving B’s (as opposed to A’s), field trips becoming more and more tricky to pull off due to safety concerns, and a general sense that friction of any kind had to be foreseen and forsworn in institutional contexts.  It worried and puzzled me then, and I’m relieved that there are organizations like LetGrow that are helping parents and schools fight back against these damaging presuppositions.  I loved that the authors make a really clear case for viewing childhood through the lens of antifragility.
  • Ego is the Enemy, Ryan Holiday.  This one is a re-read, and I should probably re-read it 3-4 times a year.  If you are interested in a really engaging introduction to Stoic thought or applying CBT-like techniques to the mess in your head, this is the go-to.  See below for the real-life implications of both allowing your ego to run amok and restraining it.
  • Conspiracy: Peter Thiel, Hulk Hogan, Gawker, and the Anatomy of Intrigue, Ryan Holiday.  I mean, what more can I say?  This book has it all –professional wrassling, libertarian billionaires, Florida Man, and blackmail.  The biggest take-away for me we might all do better to engage in more conspiracies for good — by which I mean being singularly focused on a goal, enlisting the right people to help, and doing it out of the spotlight.  Seeking credit is death for any long-term, big, and important plans, and I think this true of making changes in your own life or in the world.  That dopamine hit you get from the “likes” to your Facebook post that you’re starting a diet actually robs you of the motivation to make healthy changes.  Really.
  • Mindshift: Break Through Obstacles and Discover Your Hidden Potential, Barbara Oakley.  Re-read.  Going through transitions in your life, especially as you approach the middle of it, can be really hard.  This book helped me get my head right about how much is still within my power to change for the better.
  • How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us about Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, Michael Pollan.  I’ve written about this one here already.  I think its perfect companion piece is Mindshift, so read them back-to-back.
  • Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age, Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman.  I love biographies, and I’m especially fascinated by the stories of people who kick-started the new age.  What’s interesting about Shannon is how he (outside of short period following a break-up) was really not a tortured genius.  Just a genius, who had a good life, loving family, and remarkably modest ego.  Kind of the polar opposite of Steve Jobs, whose biography by Walter Isaacson I re-read as a companion.  I like doing the whole Plutarch thing where you study the lives of people in similar situations or positions that exemplify different virtues and vices.
  • Poetry/fiction/philosophy: for morning readings, I like to dip into A Book of Hours, which is a compilation of Thomas Merton’s writings arranged by times and days of the week.  You really can’t beat P.G. Wodehouse if you need a laugh at the end of the day.  His insight into human nature and its foibles is downright Shakespearean.
  • What I’m reading now: As a fan of both detective fiction and yes, in the spirit of full disclosure, true crime, I’m happy to recommend Margalit Fox’s new book, Conan Doyle for the Defense.  One of Fox’s previous books, a history of the decipherment of Linear B and especially Alice Kober’s role in it, taps into my other obsession, the Greek Bronze Age.  She is one of the finest writers of biography out there, a craft honed by her years as the writer of obituaries at the New York Times.

Please feel free to share other ideas or suggestions for the next round-up (probably coming in January).

 

Review: Learning How to Learn (Part III)

This is the final part of a three-part review of Learning How to Learn.  Here are the links to part I and part II.

Of the many insights packed into Learning How to Learn: How to Succeed in School Without Spending All Your Time Studying, I’d say the concept of metaphors and deliberate practice may be the two that have the most far-reaching ramifications for pedagogical practice.

On Thursday we took a look at metaphors and the vital importance of helping students build a varied and rich network of mental models and stories.

Today, I won’t even scratch the surface on the topic of deliberate practice.  I’ll attempt to sketch what it is, why it’s important, and then point you to some terrific resources to learn more.

Drs. Oakley and Sejnowski define the concept thus:

Deliberate practice means focusing on the material that’s most difficult for you.  The opposite is “lazy practice” – repeatedly practicing what’s easiest.

Anders Ericsson, whose book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, is a deep dive into exactly what, why, and how deliberate practice is the factor that distinguishes experts from amateurs.  Experts develop mental representations about and within their domains.  Drs. Oakley and Sejnowski use the term “brain chains” to describe the phenomenon.  Here’s Ericsson on this process (pp. 99-100):

Deliberate practice both produces and depends on effective mental representations.  Improving performance goes hand in hand with improving mental representations; as one’s performance improves, the representations become more detailed and effective, in turn making it possible to improve even more.

Seeing the “big picture” is what experts do.  But you can’t get there without building up a lot of smaller connections that get more and more frictionless through recall and practice.  

The path to get there is NOT to try to teach students to “think abstractly” or “use critical thinking skills” – those are manifestations of expertise, not means of getting there. 

If you’ve read Malcolm Gladwell’s bestseller Outliers: The Story of Success you know that he popularized the “10,000 Hour Rule.”  Well, guess where he got that?  From Anders Ericsson.  

The trouble with the popular understanding of the 10,000 Hour Rule is that it kind of glosses over the most important feature of it — that those 10,000 hour have to be taken up by a particular kind of practice — deliberate practice.  Check out this episode of Freakonomics on which both Anders Ericsson and Malcolm Gladwell give their perspectives on this point.

Drs. Oakley and Sejnowski provide students with a number of techniques by which they can develop the habits of deliberate practice, including interleaving, active practice, and recall.

If you’re a teacher or otherwise interested in helping students develop their knowledge and talents, I recommend that you pick up Daniel Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School?.  It draws on many of the insights regarding practice and the differences between novices and experts and applied them to the art of teaching.  Here he is in a fantastic chapter, “What’s the Secret To Getting Students To Think?” (p. 143 – emphasis mine):

Whenever you see an expert doing something differently from the way a nonexpert does it, it may well be that the expert used to do it the way the novice does it, and that doing so was a necessary step on the way to expertise.

To wrap up this mini-series inspired by Drs. Oakley and Sejnowski, here are the resources I recommend you look at next:

 

Review: Learning How to Learn (Part II)

This is the second part of a three part review of Learning How to Learn.  Here are the links to part I and part III.

Drs. Oakley and Sejnowski cover a lot of ground in Learning How to Learn: How to Succeed in School Without Spending All Your Time Studying.  Yes, it’s chock-full of neuroscience, goofy (and memorable) images, very practical tips, and bracing exhortations.

Yet it’s not really about about “quick-fixes” or even, as the kids say theses days, “hacks.”  The book’s more profound take-aways for folks who work in the education business, as teachers, policy-makers, or leaders are:

  • Metaphors matter when it comes to learning anything;
  • Mastery requires deliberate practice.

I think that if folks got their head around the first point, so much else would fall into place. I believe that bad metaphors or a poor understanding of how they work is at the root of many issues, including our current polarized political climate.  Allow me to justify this claim.

We speak and think in metaphors all the time without noticing.  Part of this is because a lot of our metaphors are so worn that they have lost the force of the original meaning.  Part of it is because metaphorical communication is the only way to tell a truth about the world, at least as well as we can understand it.

Kids learn this way – by comparing one thing or process with another, unfamiliar thing or process.

The more they know about the world, the more they can name and describe things, or relate them to stories that they know, the more quickly they can assimilate and/or discard comparisons that no longer hold.  The fewer stories they know, the fewer connections or conjectures they can make when faced with novel situations.

So far, so good.  What does this have to do with polarization?

I’m convinced that pedagogy that focuses on strategies or skills for reading comprehension falls prey (see, that’s a metaphor) to the false notion that thinking can be divorced from meaning.  That’s why I really don’t like the phrase “critical thinking.” Thinking occurs when we are thinking about something.

But if kids are deprived of knowledge about the cultural web of metaphors, allusions, and references that we’ve all created through our speech, how can we expect them to become curious about things?  Eager to read to learn?

Here is an excerpt from a forthcoming book, The Knowledge Gap, by Natalie Wexler, as cited by a recent Knowledge Matters Campaign release on NAEP scores.  I just ran across it today, and I CANNOT wait to read the book.   I think it demonstrates this point with perfect (and tragic) clarity:

In Ms. Arredondo’s first-grade classroom, the focus of the lesson is the skill of identifying captions, after a recent test showed that most students couldn’t distinguish them from subtitles.

Ms. Arredondo is trying to get the kids to understand the concept of a caption, which she’s explained before: it’s a label that tells us about a picture. When it’s clear the kids don’t remember the definition, she tells them again.

But the kids have trouble grasping the idea. “Words?” one student ventures, when asked to repeat the definition. What the students are interested in is what’s going on in the pictures.  When Ms. Arredondo shows the children a book with a picture of a shark, they’re eager to know what the shark is eating.  When she shows them a picture of a planet, they want to know if it’s the moon. But Ms. Arredondo doesn’t answer these questions, because the point is not to have students learn about sharks or planets but to identify the captions that go with the pictures.

By the time she shows the students a funny photograph of a bunch of goats that have climbed a tree–a photo that cries out for an explanation–they don’t even ask about it. It’s not clear they’ve learned what a caption is, but they seem to have learned that their questions about the content of the photos aren’t going to be answered.

One of the arguments in favor of reading used to be that it gave you the experience of getting out of your own skin and experiencing the world through the eyes of another, only to discover that you had more in common with them than you initially thought.  In other worlds, fiction helps develop your theory of mind and your imagination.  One might even go so far as to say your empathy.

But if kids don’t read books that stretch them much past their own experiences or lives and they are taught that books are really just an exercise in “getting to the main idea,” for instance, they won’t be able to:

  • Understand that other people have inner lives and motives too, and that disagreements do not make them your enemy
  • Comprehend arguments that draw on historical comparisons or philosophical schools of thought that are unfamiliar
  • Have a nexus of diverse metaphors into which they can weave or challenge new ideas.

Kids who learn about, say, the Roman Monarchy, Republic, and Empire, are arguably on a far better footing later in life when it comes time to learn about the American Revolution.  What made it so radical?  What ancient examples were the founders both drawing on and resisting?  Were they successful?  If so, how so?  If not, why not?

We lament the state of civics education in this country.  And we are right to do so.  But that’s a symptom of (and I use this in its literal, not pejorative sense) ignorance.  The word ignorant simply means “without knowledge.”  We can’t blame the students.  The educational system has in many cases been rigged specifically against imparting knowledge.

We’ll take a closer look at what deliberate practice is and why it’s so important on Monday.

Review: Learning How to Learn (Part I)

This is the first of three-part review of Learning How to Learn – here are the links to part II and part III.

I’ve name-checked one of my favorite thinkers and writers on the science of learning, Dr. Barbara Oakley, a couple of times already on this blog.  It’s time I share with you a little bit about why you should be as excited about her work as I am.

Dr. Barbara Oakley and Dr. Terry Sejnowski are the teachers of Learning How to Learn – the number 1 MOOC in the world.  They wanted to bring their insights from the course to students of younger ages.  The result is the new book, Learning How to Learn: How to Succeed in School Without Spending All Your Time Studying.  Unless you have above average knowledge of the latest neuroscience, I’d say this book is for you, too.

The earlier in your life you pick up, read, and adopt these ideas, the better off you’ll be.  As one of my other favorite life-coach-y authors, James Clear, often says: “habits are the compound interest of self-improvement.”

There is so much goodness here that I’d like to split this review into at few parts, if my faithful readers will bear with me.

The first chapter, “The Problem with Passion,” is the antidote to Facebook/LinkedIn memes like this one:

Steve jobs best famous quotes ideas pics images (14)

 

Drs. Oakley and Sejnowski beg to differ, and add personal stories to support their science:

It’s easy to believe that you should only concentrate on subjects that come easily for you.  But my story reveals that you can do well in subjects you don’t even like.  The truth is, it’s okay to follow your passions.  But I also found that broadening my passions opened many wonderful opportunities.

I think this is a message that all of us, of all ages, need to fully embrace.  As someone who is persuaded by the idea that division of labor generally leads to the flourishing of societies and individuals, I think it will lead to impossibly bad results if we misapply the insight to mean that young students (let’s say up to 8th grade) should be free to concentrate their time only on the subjects that they “get” or that seem to hold some fascination.

Educational myths like “learning styles” ironically perpetuate the bigotry of low expectations because they teach students that it’s OK not to push themselves to improve their abilities in say, math, science, or reading.

But I digress.

Drs. Oakley and Sejnowski don’t spend time tilting at the windmills of the educational establishment (and I include in that number loads of education “reformers”).  They are quite correct that true change start with the individual and with the individual’s ability to grow, change, and improve.  How better to empower the next generation than by letting them in on the marvelous secret that their factory-installed equipment is more than up to the challenges that life poses?

As we’ll see, Drs. Oakley and Sejnowski make the case that metaphors are the way we can “hack” our brains to learn new subjects.  Having exposure to a number of different subjects, especially ones that are very different from the domains where we are most comfortable, is a powerful way to make new and creative connections and discoveries.

While specialization has many benefits, let’s not forget that our brains are antifragile.  Getting too comfortable, or falling into “rut-think” (Chapter 14), can lead to stagnation and complacency.

I’m excited to share more with you about this book in the next few posts.  Hopefully I’ll find a way to move a little faster than one blog post per chapter!