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?


Sufferring is optional said...

You sure can. I think people have been practicing those three principles. Recently I found an article about study skills. One of the sections is kinda like "how to get the most out of the reading", and it said that in order to memorize what we read, we need to read one paragraph at time (it's "chunk"). Obviously, the more you read, you faster read and the more you learn( it should be thousand hours of practice).

Unknown said...

Interesting. Could you share the title/author of the article?

I'm always a little leery of "study skills" articles or suggestions. My experience has been that they are generally quite superficial and artificial. Coyle argues that practice needs to be authentic so that the skills acquired can be transferred to real situations. The traditional study skills courses that I have seen taught on college campuses generally don't have a lasting impact because students treat them like any other course, meaning they jump through the hoops but never use the "skills" in their other courses.

How do we get around this?

phantomfive said...

I would argue that this IS how some skills are taught, like reading. If you step back and think of all that is involved in reading (it's a lot: for example, you have to teach a kid that words go left to right), it is a difficult skill that we manage to teach to little kids. It's been broken up into the essential elements that everyone needs to learn, and it is easy for the kid to know when he is right or wrong, the feedback is pretty much instant. And the motivation.....most kindergarten teachers are good at motivating.

This system breaks down with skills that are essentially memorization, like basic arithmetic, which is a necessary skill, but is mainly memorization. Maybe you could try to teach arithmetic in a way that followed this system, however, I can't think of one. A lot of skills actually involve memorization, if you can't get that down, you will be limited.

hugo said...

I wrote a long response saying how it may not be done, but then I came up with a possible solution :)

Here is my idea:

At the beginning of class, after children have settled, here could be a set amount dedicated on deep practice on some subject, such as math, for about 10 minutes, and then move into normal class.

Hopefully the deep practice time will transfer to other classes.

Unknown said...

I like that idea Hugo. Dedicated "deep practice" time each day could be a great thing.

In terms of transfer to other settings or subjects, I don't think that would happen automatically. Educators would need to help students step back and reflect on the process of deep practice and help them see how it might apply in other areas (see all of the metacognition & transfer work out there for more info).

Marti said... Find more info on Deliberate practice here.

Marti said...

It is good to see a BYU blogger! I graduated from there in 1984. I'm going to have my teachers create Link's Trainers for the subjects they teach. Thanks for identifying the elements. The Talent Code is a great book for getting me thinking but he left our a key ingredient. There must be some fun or joy in the practice or there it is not prolonged. I see this a the coaches least at first.

Unknown said...

Did you read all of Coyle's book? He tries to address the issue of motivation in Part II of the book ("Ignition"), although he doesn't use the term "fun" all that often. Deep practice seems like kind of paradoxical state (much like the "flow" that Csikszentmihalyi writes about) where the performer is taxed or stretched to a high degree, but finds a great deal of satisfaction in that process. I'm not sure whether that can be called "fun" or not, but it does seem to be a decent explanation for why learners or performers are willing to put in the hard work associated with "deliberate practice."

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