Purposeful Practice and an agreement to disagree

Yesterday I finished listening to ‘Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise’ by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool.

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The book explores the phenomenon of experts – those who manage to go further, see beyond, run, jump or swim faster; the top competitors in chess and Scrabble, the Magi of art, music, physics and literature.

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You see, the writers suggest there is a common theme which has less to do with innate talent or IQ and more to do with what they describe as Purposeful Practice – a form of mindful self-improvement and growth; where an individual participates in whatever art, science or sport, repeatedly, but not just blindly doing the same thing over and over, more, learning from each action, each practice to find new ways to go beyond;

All of this is helped by having a good teacher, as they can act as a guide in how to make initial progress, or a coach, who can provide an objective assessment of your performance and propose alternatives.

Mindless Practice, just like Mindless Medicine, for example, where people carry-out tasks with their bodies but their spirits and focus are elsewhere doesn’t do anyone any good – in healthcare this results in mistakes and errors, in other branches of life, people eventually stop practicing as they make no progress.

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Another theme of the book is that anyone can achieve mastery or excellence in a skill or ability (with some specific limitations relating to height and body size – no matter how much you practice, if you are too tall or too small you won’t make a great Judoka or long-jumper).

In the book they even dispel the myth of savants – those who have specific abilities that appear transcendent; the old men who can tell you which day of the week the 24th of January 8031 will fall, within seconds, or the wunderkinds who can draw in detail representations of a scene they have observed once for five seconds seconds.

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The writers suggest that what makes these savants able to perform in this way is not magic, but the adoption of strategies of purposeful practice;

Even, it has been found that chess Grand Masters, who we mostly tend to assume to be people of great ability if not genius, frequently have below average IQ’s.

I won’t go into the detail; you had better read or listen to the book if you are interested; I have a copy if someone wants to borrow one.

Where I am heading is the disagreement last night where I was discussing this with my son, or, rather, I believe we agreed to disagree, although I suspect we really agreed.

My son has his GCSE’s this week and into next month.

In some subjects he has a natural interest and enjoys learning, in others less so.

He believes that this is because he is good at say, English, and not good or lacking in ability at others, for example, Maths.

Over the years I have seen kids, peers of my children who are apparent whizzes at Maths. By the time they are 12 they have progressed to sitting the A-level. In the past they used to get on to TV – with headlines like: Six-year-old tot with five A-levels; considers Cambridge.

The assumption being that the tot has some abilities that put him or her beyond, in a different space, one which only those fortunate to be born with the requisite genetics can obtain.

 

The book says and the science suggests this isn’t true; the tot is just a tot like any other, it is just that for whatever reason the child has either been exposed to, forced to comply or just enjoys doing maths or chemistry or whatever from an early age.

Anyone could do the same.

A good example is Mozart; everyone assumes he had a God-given gift; so, thought Salieri in the movie.

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No, again, it is practice.

You can find children brought-up with the Suzuki Method able to perform the violin or piano just as well as Amadeus likely could at the same age.

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I appreciate I am not doing very well creating a narrative in this blog; the reader is possibly wondering, what about your son?

Well, my mission was to convince him that he is neither better or lesser than those other kids who seem to be naturals at Maths – it is just that the ones who are very good dedicate far more time to practice and in particular Purposeful Practice.

My kids never really liked My Maths – the go-to for maths teaching in the UK; the children who saw this as fun, as a game, as a way to curry favour with parents and teachers, who instead of watching Power Rangers sat at a PC for hours and practiced are the ones steaming ahead.

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I think we agreed – once we had faced the issue as to whether I was actually insulting him (you are just like everyone else), teaching him humility (ibid), or, bigging him up (you have worked harder than lots of other people).

For now, I want to return to the democratising concept of equality.

Races, genders, ages, we are all equal and all have equal abilities; we don’t all have the same opportunities; that is for another day;

Imagine, if, with the ongoing expansion of the life on Planet Earth, we were able to harness some aspects of this training to grow the number of experts; imagine the new normal would be that when you see a doctor, the expectation isn’t that they are as good as everyone else (the Bolam Principle), but, that they are as good as the best people in the world; it just takes the right training.

If we facilitate exposure to training and education to a greater number of people, and specifically, the right education – not just parrot fashion rote, but deep understanding, learning and growth, we are likely to achieve a better understanding of the world and hope for tomorrow.

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I’ll leave with an anecdote about Richard Feynman – a physicist considered amongst the greatest minds of his generation (also a crazy bongo-player, linguist and lock-picker) – Feynman (one of Sheldon’s heroes on The Big Bang) apparently had an IQ of 126; this puts him in the bracket of very clever, but not a candidate for Mensa or genius level which is traditionally considered to be an IQ of 140 or more.

Yet he was a genius.

What is genius?

It is no big deal according to the writers;

Please have a good weekend.

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4 Comments

  1. Interesting topic, Rod, but I find it hard to agree. Perhaps, the only real way to observe this practice effect is to take a group of tabulae rasae (for Kitty) infants, at birth and provided them with identical training on specific activities. Might work.

    I read recently that the reason some people “catch on” faster than others is that their neurons fire faster. Personally, I’m terribly slow at catching onto things, be it how a new app works on my phone, or learning a new kata. Apparently my neurons aren’t of the Lewis Hamilton variety. I probably get there in the end, and I’d say I’m just as good at a task than my speedy neuron friends. But there is a definite difference in learning style.

    Nigel

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    1. Agree learning styles differ and some of us are a little slower on the uptake than others – this doesn’t mean you are less able to gain mastery in a Kata – indeed, because of your slowness it is likely you will focus more on learning the kata and spend longer than someone who gets it straight away and consequently gain a deeper understanding. See – backhanded complement and agreeing to disagree all in the one blog!

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  2. Perhaps some brains are number ready at a certain early stage, as some are reading ready at slightly different times in development.
    Encouragement, some success, lead to confidence , making a difference.
    Perhaps your children were part of the ‘ back to chanting tables ‘ season.
    Purposeful practice accompanied though by basic understanding of the underlying relationships e.g. between numbers?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. And good luck to your son doing his GCSEs – so much pressure at school, good to agree to disagree at home and keep calm, sure you know already .Plus teenage hormones occasionally in some situations not necessarily in accordance with early midlife experience.

    Like

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