Ericsson, Anders & Pool, Robert. (2016). Peak: Secrets from the New Science of
Expertise. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Over the years I have seen references to K. Anders Ericsson and his research regarding learning. I believe there are multiple connections to learning, whether it be PreK-12, higher education, or applications for the goal of getting better at what you do. This is one of the best books on learning I have read. Buy it, read it, and apply it.
As usual, the italicized portions are directly from the book. This summary has lots of direct quotes. There are many more relevant quotes and research in this book that are represented in this summary.
“This is a book about a fundamentally new way of thinking about human potential, one that suggests we have far more power than we ever realized to take control of our own lives.” We know that when born, other than some physical disability, the brain can learn any one of about 6000 languages. So much for the theory, some people are smart and some will never be intelligent. We all can get better at our jobs, hobbies, and other skills. Most of us in education understand that there is a balance between nature (what we are born with) and nurture (the environment we develop in). There really isn’t “predefined ability.” A learning environment, at home AND school, will be necessary to deal with the challenges of today and, more importantly, tomorrow.
Mozart’s father supplied Wolfgang with many musical instruments, mentored him continuously and was always stretching his musical talents. Most of us did not have the same opportunities in our lives. So, expertise was being developed at a very young age and continued to be nurtured in Wolfgang’s early life. Some of us believe if you just keep working on something, ah the 10,000-hour rule, you will be an expert. I could spend 50,000 hours on fixing automobiles and I will never be as good of a mechanic like some of my classmates or students in high schools where I have worked.
What Ericsson promotes is the “deliberate practice” approach, not just the number of hours. He has referred to this a “purposeful practice.” in the 1990s. He named this universal approach “deliberate practice.” Today deliberate practice remains the gold standard for anyone in any field who wishes to take advantage of the gift of adaptability in order to build new skills and abilities which is the main point of this book. Whatever your goal e.g. tennis, violin, teaching, mechanics, etc. when you reach a satisfactory level of performance we stop improving our craft. So, when I was asked, several years ago, whether there was an end to going to workshops, reading, and adding repertoire to my skills, my answer was, “NO.” Whatever you have, you will need more in the future to continue to be successful. Whether you are a doctor, maintenance person, receptionists, etc. you will need more learning to keep up with VUCA world
“Research has shown that once a person reaches that level of “acceptable” performance and automaticity, the additional years of “practice” don’t lead to improvement. If anything, the doctor or the teacher or the driver who’s been at it for twenty years is likely to be a bit worse than the one who’s been doing it for only five, and the reason is that these automated abilities gradually deteriorate in the absence of deliberate efforts to improve.”
Purposeful Practice is different from “naïve practice.” “Naïve practice in a nutshell: I just played it. I just swung the bat and tried to hit the ball. I just listened to the numbers and tried to remember them. I just read the math problems and tried to solve them.”
Here are some attributes of purposeful practice:
1. Purposeful practice has well-defined, specific goals. “Play the piece all the way through at the proper speed without a mistake three times in a row. Purposeful practice is all about putting a bunch of baby steps together to reach a longer-term goal.
2. Purposeful practice is focused. Pick a goal and work on one or two at a time. Don’t try to change everything at once. Our willpower lessens as the cognitive load increases
3. Purposeful practice involves feedback. You have to know whether you are doing something right and, if not, how you’re going wrong.
4. Purposeful practice requires getting out of one’s comfort zone. This is perhaps the most important part of purposeful practice. This is a fundamental truth about any sort of practice: If you never push yourself beyond your comfort zone, you will never improve.
For me, getting out of your comfort zone is the difference between Avis and Apple. Trying harder can be helpful to a point. Thinking differently, to get better results, can help get amazing transformations in knowledge, skills, and application.
“The best way to get past any barrier is to come at it from a different direction, which is one reason it is useful to work with a teacher or coach.” At some point trying hard is limiting. Continuing to dig a hole when you are not finding oil is unproductive. Try digging in another spot. Hanging in there, being persistent isn’t easy. So, persist and adapt. Peak Performers know when to press on and when to quit and try something else.
“Purposeful practice in a nutshell: Get outside your comfort zone but do it in a focused way, with clear goals, a plan for reaching those goals, and a way to monitor your progress.”
Practice also can change the brain and repurpose neurons. “If you practice something enough, your brain will repurpose neurons to help with the task even if they already have another job to do. In the brain, the greater the challenge, the greater the changes — up to a point. Recent studies have shown that learning a new skill is much more effective at triggering structural changes in the brain than simply continuing to practice a skill that one has already learned. On the other hand, pushing too hard for too long can lead to burnout and ineffective learning. The brain, like the body, changes most quickly in that sweet spot where it is pushed outside — but not too far outside — its comfort zone.” I, Bill, call this the Goldilocks Theory of Learning.
Edward Taub at the University of Alabama at Birmingham studied violinists, cellists, and one guitar player. The portion of the brain that controlled the fingers on the right hand had taken over a section that is normally devoted to the palm. All of the musicians were right-handed.
We found that the best violin students had, on average, spent significantly more time than the better violin students had spent and that the top two groups — better and best — had spent much more time on solitary practice than the music-education student; the music-education students had practiced an average of 3,420 hours on the violin by the time they were eighteen, the better violin students had practiced an average of 5,301 hours, and the best violin students had practiced an average of 7,410 hours.
We found that the largest differences in practice time among the three groups of students had come in the preteen and teenage years. Two things were strikingly clear from the study: First, to become an excellent violinist requires several thousand hours of practice. We found no shortcuts and no “prodigies” who reached an expert level with relatively little practice. And, second, even among these gifted musicians — all of whom had been admitted to the best music academy in Germany — the violinists who had spent significantly more hours practicing their craft were on average more accomplished than those who had spent less time practicing.
Ericsson distinguishes between purposeful practice and deliberate practice in two ways.
1. It requires a field that is already reasonably well developed.
2. Deliberate practice requires a teacher who can provide practice activities designed to help a student improve his or her performance.
Deliberate practice is characterized by the following traits:
• Deliberate practice develops skills that other people have already figured out how to do and for which effective training techniques have been established.
• Deliberate practice takes place outside one’s comfort zone and requires a student to constantly try things that are just beyond his or her current abilities
• Deliberate practice involves well-defined, specific goals and often involves improving some aspect of the target performance; it is not aimed at some vague overall improvement.
• Deliberate practice is deliberate, that is, it requires a person’s full attention and conscious actions.
• Deliberate practice involves feedback and modification of efforts in response to that feedback.
• Deliberate practice both produces and depends on effective re mental representations. Improving performance goes hand in hand with improving mental representations; as one’s performance improves.
• Deliberate practice nearly always involves building or modifying previously acquired skills by focusing on particular aspects of those skills and working to improve them specifically; over time this step-by-step improvement will eventually lead to expert performance.
APPLYING THE PRINCIPLES OF DELIBERATE PRACTICE – “You need a teacher or coach who assigns practice techniques designed to help you improve on very specific skills.” It is almost always the best to work with a good coach or teacher to increase skills. The good coach or teacher can give you the best feedback.
There is no 10,000-hour rule. It is appealing to think that expertise is a function of time. However, this is not true. Even though it became popular from Gladwell’s book. It is not true for the following reasons:
1. The number of ten thousand hours at age twenty for the best violinists was only an average. Half of the ten violinists in that group hadn’t actually accumulated ten thousand hours at that age.
2. Gladwell didn’t distinguish between the deliberate practice that the musicians in our study did and any sort of activity that might be labeled “practiced the Beatles,” exhausting schedule of performances in Hamburg between 1960 and 1964. According to Gladwell, they played some twelve hundred times, each performance lasting as much as eight hours, which would have summed up to nearly ten thousand hours after an extensive analysis, suggests that a more accurate total number is about eleven hundred hours of playing. Performing isn’t the same thing as practice.
3. Although Gladwell himself didn’t say this, many people have interpreted it as a promise that almost anyone can become an expert in a given field by putting in ten thousand hours of practice. But nothing in my study implied this.
Gladwell did get one thing right, and it is worth repeating because it’s crucial: becoming accomplished in any field in which there is a well-established history of people working to become experts requires a tremendous amount of effort exerted over many years. It may not require exactly ten thousand hours, but it will take a lot.
Here are the principles of deliberate practice that can be useful for discussion:
• Does it push people to get outside their comfort zones and attempt to do things that are not easy for them?
• Does it offer immediate feedback on the performance and on what can be done to improve it?
• Have those who developed the approach identified the best performers in that particular area and determined what sets them apart from everyone else?
• Is the practice designed to develop the particular skills that experts in the field possess?
A yes answer to all those questions may not guarantee that an approach will be effective, but it will certainly make that much more likely.
Deliberate practice focuses solely on performance and how to improve it. One thing is clear: with few exceptions, neither doctors nor nurses gain expertise from experience alone. Doctors are clearly serious about keeping their skills sharp. Unfortunately, the way they have been doing it just isn’t working.
Dave Davis, a doctor and educational scientist at the University of Toronto. examined a wide-ranging group of educational “interventions,” by which they meant courses, conferences and other meetings, lectures, and symposia, taking part in medical rounds, and pretty much anything else whose goal was to increase doctors’ knowledge and improve their performance.
The most effective interventions, Davis found, were those that had some interactive component — role-play, discussion groups, case solving, hands-on training, and the like. By contrast, the least effective activities were “didactic” interventions — that is, those educational activities that essentially consisted of doctors listening to a lecture.
Professional schools focus on knowledge rather than skills because it is much easier to teach knowledge and then create tests for it. Once you have figured out the right question to ask, you are halfway to the right answer. How do we improve the relevant skills? Rather than, how do we teach the relevant knowledge?
This ability — to recognize unexpected situations, quickly consider various possible responses, and decide on the best one — is important, not just in medicine, but in many areas the best way to teach what it calls “adaptive thinking.” I believe teaching and leading are two of the most in need of adaptive thinking. Improv classes can help. I know they helped me.
What if you do not have a teacher or a coach? To effectively practice a skill without a teacher, it helps to keep in mind three F’s: Focus. Feedback. Fix it.
Motivation is also key. You have to believe you can succeed. Without this belief, learned helplessness sets in which becomes a major impediment. One of the best extrinsic motivators is social motivation. Whether you are looking to people you trust to encourage you or see your social group enjoying the same activity, social motivation shows very positive results. Ah, peer group. Question: who do you hang around? People who sap you and drain your energy or people who zap you, energize and excite you by contributing to your learning.
Benjamin Franklin – at twenty-one recruited eleven of the most intellectually interesting people in Philadelphia to form a mutual improvement club, which he named “the Junto.” The club’s members, who met each Friday night, would encourage each other’s various intellectual pursuits. Every member was expected to bring at least one interesting topic of conversation — on morals, politics, or science — to each meeting. The topics, which were generally phrased as questions, were to be discussed by the group in the sincere spirit of inquiry after truth, without fondness for dispute or desire of victory. This sounds like a PLC to me.
The bottom line is that no one has ever managed to figure out how to identify people with “innate talent.” No one has ever found a gene variant that predicts superior performance in one area or another, and no one has ever come up with a way to, say, test young children and identify which among them will become the best athletes or the best mathematicians or the best doctors or the best musicians.
Here are a few thoughts about raising children from Ericsson’s book that can help them learn. Most of a young child’s vocabulary development comes through interaction with a parent or other caregiver, and studies have shown that children with a temperament that encourages social interaction end up developing better language skills.
Recent research has shown that children who have had experience playing linear board games with counting steps before they start school will do better in math once they are in school. Most teachers, however, are not familiar with this possibility, so when some kids “get” math more quickly than others, they’re generally assumed to be gifted at math while the others aren’t. Then the “gifted” ones get more encouragement, more training, and so on, and, sure enough, after a year or so they’re much better at math than the others, and this advantage propagates through the school years.
Redesigning teaching methods using deliberate practice could dramatically increase how quickly and how well students learn — as the almost unbelievable improvements in Wieman’s students indicates — but it will require not only a change in mindset among educators but much more research into the minds of experts.
Students who develop mental representations can go on to generate their own scientific experiments or to write their own books — and research has shown that many successful scientists and authors started their careers at a young age in just this way. The best way to help students develop this and mental representations in an area is to give them models they can replicate and learn from, just as Benjamin Franklin did when he improved his writing by reproducing articles from The Spectator. They need to try and fail — but with ready access to models that show what success looks like.
Deliberate practice can revolutionize our thinking about human potential. That revolution starts when we realize that the best among us in various areas do not occupy that perch because they were born with some innate talent but rather because they have developed their abilities through years of practice, taking advantage of the adaptability of the human body and brain.
I hope this has been helpful to our goals of intentionally accelerating learning for adults and children.