Friday, May 1, 2009

Deep Practice


I've been reading up on skill acquisition as of late and came across Talent Code, by Daniel Coyle.  In it he describes a concept he terms "deep practice" and argues that people become very good at something by practicing in a very specific, focused way.  He identifies three rules of deep practice:

 1.  Practice skills in "chunks"

            The critical idea here is that the learner first needs to develop a picture or "vision" of what a successful performance looks like (e.g. watching an expert, viewing film, etc.).  From there they break the skill into chunks and practice those parts of the skill individually, gradually adding pieces over time until each of the individual parts have been integrated into a smooth performance.   Coyle also argues that the chunks should be practiced slowly so that the learner can understand how each of the chunks fit together and flow into each other.

 2.  Lots of Repetitions

            This is similar to the 10,000 hour rule discussed by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers.  The key is spending enough time and energy that the deep practice pays off.  Although expertise will take close to 10 years to develop.  Individual, high intensity deep practice sessions (those that include lots of repetitions) will dramatically increase the speed of skill acquisition. 

 3.  Learn to "feel" mistakes

            This is what I took to be the key element of deep practice.  People who are very skilled in some arena have become that way, not because of some innate genius or talent, but because they have learned to learn.  In other words, they were just as bad as the rest of us to begin with;  however, they were able to identify their mistakes and correct them.  As this cycle is repeated over the course of many practice sessions (often over a period of ten years or so), they develop expertise.   For a great discussion of the same idea, but in different language, you might want to look at Carol Dweck's work in Mindset. 

 When these three elements of practice come together Coyle says it places the learner in the "sweet spot" (very similar to Csikszhentmihalyi's description of "Flow") where the task is just beyond the learner's capabilities.  The dancer Martha Graham has described this as a condition that leads to "divine dissatisfaction" wherein the learner doesn't reach their goal, but is close enough that they are motivated to keep working.

 So, my question after learning about all of this is whether traditional educators can learn anything from all of this.  Can we design learning environments where students are engaged in "deep" academic practice?  Will this only work for the most highly motivated student (Coyle might argue that it does, although I haven't finished his book yet and he has a section devoted to motivation so I might retract this statement)? 

 Learning and thinking, in my mind, are both skills that we are trying to help students acquire.  So, it makes sense that these principles of skill acquisition would apply to our learning environments.  But, the transfer seems to be a little more difficult given that we aren't engaging students in overt actions like a tennis coach or music teacher would. 

 How do we make all of this work for education?

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