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 appear to 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:
- Ericsson, Anders and Pool, Robert, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise
- Foer, Joshua, Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remebering Everything
- Willingham, Daniel, Why Don’t Students Like School?
- Clear, James, Atomic Habits: Tiny Changes, Remarkable Results
- Oakley, Babara, Mindshift: Break through Obstacles to Learning and Discover Your Hidden Potential