milk/juice br_ad / b_tt_r
chair/table sh_e / so_k
ocean/whale r_v_r / f_sh
Now without looking, try to remember as many pairs of words as you can.
From which column did you recall more words?
Did you have more difficulty reading column B?
If you are like most people, you will remember more from column B.
Studies show you’ll remember three times as many.
“Deep Practice” is a term Daniel Coyle used in his book, The Talent Code. “Deep Practice is built on a paradox: struggling in certain targeted ways - operating at the edge of your ability where you make mistakes- makes you more efficient.” 1 In the previous example, the mere fact of making an effort to read is enough to mark a larger imprint on our memory. “We think of effortless performance as desirable, but it’s really a terrible way to learn, said Robert Bjork,” 2 the chair of the psychology department at U.C.L.A.
Students will learn best when they are forced to make an effort, when they allow themselves to make mistakes. This attitude is crucial for a learner‘s resilience. Learners’ tendencies to persist in the face of difficulty are strongly affected by whether they are “performance oriented” (fixed mindset) or “learning oriented” (growth mindset).3 When a mistake becomes an opportunity for learning and problem solving, students will strive to do better every time because they believe their learning capability can grow. Hence, how many retakes of an exam should a teacher give? Or after a teacher asks a question, how many seconds should he or she wait before giving out the answer? Cognitive science research seems to indicate that giving students the chance to make a mistake in a low stake situation is a more effective way to help them learn. They will remember much more as well as gain problem solving skills. They will also learn to overcome mistakes, learn about the way their memory works, and develop a growth mindset.
Most music teachers would agree that after a certain minimum level of required practice, it is not the amount of time one spends in music practice that matters, it is the way one practices. Yet there is a limit for how much “deep practice” human beings can do in a day. Ericsson’s research shows that “most world-class experts-including pianists, chess players, novelists, and athletes- practice between three and five hours a day, no matter what skill they pursue.”4 This is probably because “deep practice” would have drained our brain power, and we would not be able to concentrate after three hours. If we were truly in “deep practice” we should also have the impression of continuing to rehearse the material we just learned while we rest. Students have told me that they dream about their music pieces after intense rehearsal sessions. Research suggests that when rehearsals are spaced out, the brain uses that rest period to consolidate that new information or skill and transfer it into long term memory.5
When studying alone, it is hard to push oneself out of our comfort zone to get into this “deep practice” zone. When we repeat or re-read without a clear goal, we tend to zone out and let automaticity take over. This happens to some of us when we drive and take a wrong turn because that is a turn we often took. Sometimes it takes an outside source, a teacher, a peer, or even an object, such as a random alarm, to help us realize that we were zoning out. David Kahneman, in his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, cited an experiment which proved that the initial “effort” we make, even unconsciously, can make our mind jump to a higher level of engagement of the brain. In one experiment, the same test questions were either badly printed or well printed.6 This simple visual difference resulted in a wide variance in students’ scores. Students faced with the badly printed questions were better at answering tricky questions than the ones who had an easier time deciphering the exact same questions! Why? The initial effort made to read the badly printed words engaged their brains, and prepared them to think harder.
Experiments in skill development find that humans tend to plateau after a certain point. One example of this is in speed typing. In the 1960s, psychologists Paul Fitts and Michael Posner described three stages anyone goes through in acquiring a new skill. The first stage called the “cognitive stage” is when one intellectualizes the task and finds strategies to accomplish things more efficiently. 7 The second stage, the “associative stage,” is when one is comfortable enough and spends much less energy concentrating and making fewer major errors. The third stage, called the “autonomous stage,” is when one plateaus and most skills learned are now running on automatic pilot.
In fact, the latest research on neuron myelin building suggests that we are built to automatize skills as soon as we can. “The more we develop a skill circuit [in our neurons], the less we’re aware that we’re using it.”8 As soon as a particular skill is getting easier, another part of the brain, the cerebellum, is taking over this more or less automatized task, and we have more brain power to devote to other tasks. In fact, the latest research on neuron myelin building suggests that we humans are built to automatize skills as soon as we can. “The more we develop a skill circuit [in our neurons], the less we’re aware that we’re using it.”8
When one can be on automatic pilot Csikszentmihalyi calls it the feeling of effortlessness, flow, or “in the zone”. Flow theory is now a common word in positive psychology. But Deep Practice is to prevent us from getting to that automatic stage. It is more like a laser-sharp pointed mind, like sitting on the edge of a fence, where balance is crucial. In order to prevent this automaticity and remain in the “deep practice” zone, teachers will have to come up with many ways to engage their students at the right level, scaffolding on what they already know.
Since Deep Practice is a way to develop more efficient learning, and it can be practiced, it follows that continuous Deep Practice will build a growth mindset. Students with fixed mindset will tend to take feedback very personally, they avoid failures and challenges because they want to perform well, so they stick to what they know. Students with a growth mindset will “go out on a limb because that’s where the fruit is”, 9 they embrace challenges, they are not afraid to make a mistake because they know these are opportunities to learn; they take constructive feedback as an assessment of their current state, and they believe they can learn to do better. In order to build self-efficacy and life long learners, teachers should encourage growth mindsets and give students opportunities to reflect on how they learn, to understand how mistakes occur, and guide them to find solutions.
- Coyle, Daniel, The Talent Code- Greatness Isn’t Born, It’s Grown, Here’s How, Bantam Dell-Random House, N.Y., 2009 (pp. 16).
- Ibid,(pp. 18).
- Dweck Carol S. (1989) Motivation. In A. Glesgold and R. Glaser (Eds), Foundations for a Psychology of Education 1989 (pp. 105-107).
- Ericsson, K. A. (2009). Discovering deliberate practice activities that overcome plateaus and limits on improvement of performance. In A. Willamon, S. Pretty, and R. Buck (Eds.), Proceedings of the International Symposium on Performance Science 2009 (pp. 11-21).
- Bjork, R. A., & Bjork, E. L. (2006). Optimizing treatment and instruction: Implications of a new theory of disuse. In L-G. Nilsson and N. Ohta (Eds.), Memory and society: Psychological perspectives (pp. 109-133). Psychology Press: Hove and New York.
- Kahneman, Daniel, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, N.Y., 2011 (pp. 46)
- Coyle, Daniel, The Talent Code- Greatness Isn’t Born, It’s Grown, Here’s How, Bantam Dell-Random House, N.Y., 2009 (pp. 169).
- Ibid,(pp. 37).
- Mark Twain