Everyday Obstacles to Mastery

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The kind of training that leads to mastery is well-known, yet not yet widely applied. What keeps more of us from applying the best practices of top coaches and teachers? What can we do to overcome these blocks and unleash the hidden potential in all of us?

Common Knowledge

It’s becoming increasingly difficult to find the person who hasn’t heard of Malcolm Gladwell and the 10,000 hour rule made famous in his 2008 book, Outliers [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK](?). Gladwell and other popular writers like him managed to capture the key insights that great teachers and coaches use to build excellence in all areas of human performance.

To summarize the story so far as told by Gladwell, top performers are made, not born. People like Mozart or Tiger Woods, who go on to become giants in their field are usually not recognized as “talented” until they’ve already put in a lot of practice. And the kind of practice they do matters: massive quantities of intense, challenging “deliberate practice” is the rocket fuel that propels aspirants to the top of their respective fields, not simply “putting in time” at the piano or the golf course.

Not Time, Not Correctness, But Deliberate Practice

In the United States, there are two major efforts to improve education. Schools are lengthening the school day and shrinking summer vacation in a bid to increase learning by increasing instruction. Meanwhile, administrators are using high-stakes testing to identify which schools and teachers are effective and which are not.

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While these two initiatives are well-intentioned, at best they target derivative aspects of the true keys to learning. Learning takes a lot of time, true, but not just any kind of time. Mastery demands that learners focus intensely on subjects that are challenging to them and receive lots of timely feedback to continuously improve their performance. Deliberate practice of this kind is mentally demanding. Even world-class performers can summon the energy to put themselves in the state of deliberate practice a maximum of four hours each day. Seeing as the average U.S. school days is already far more than four hours long, it makes more sense to raise the percentage of student time spent in deliberate practice rather than simply keeping kids at their desks for more hours in the day. From a mastery perspective, administrators seeking to extend the school year are on the right track, since this affords more days to pull against the four-hour-a-day limit for deliberate practice.

High-stakes testing (and really, any sort of testing) has the potential to compete with and choke out deliberate practice in several ways. A focus on testing can lead to “teaching to the test”. Ideally, a test would look deeply and accurately at the foundational skills that are most important. In the real world, few tests do this. Or rather, the most efficient way to maximize a test score is to learn “dirty tricks” that have nothing to do with the material but instead exploit (ethically, of course — we’re not talking about cheating here) the weaknesses of the test. A raft of test preparation companies are more than willing (for a price) to teach these loopholes. When I needed to take the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) for admission to a Masters program several years ago, I was able to massively boost my score on the practice test and later the actual exam by using these techniques.

A culture of high-stakes testing also threatens deliberate practice because of the way it stigmatizes error. Deliberate practice means working on tasks outside of current abilities, and that means making lots and lots of mistakes. But if students get the message that mistakes are bad, they’ll avoid trying harder material and cover up mistakes rather than learn from them. Yet testing doesn’t need to be the enemy of deliberate practice. If trainers instill the attitude that mistakes are necessary, that “get your mistakes out in practice” is good so you won’t make them during testing, then testing need not be a problem.

The (Elusive) Zone of Proximal Development

Not all training experiences are alike. For optimal learning, we say that the learner must be challenged at their “zone of proximal development.” A less-obtuse way to say the same thing is that learners must attempt something that is currently beyond their abilities, but only slightly out of reach. Through many cycles of failure, feedback, reflection, and adjustment, the impossible becomes possible and a new level of performance is achieved.

The zone of proximal development is hard to find under the best of conditions. Traditional classrooms are a dismal place to look for it. Given that a class will contain diverse skill levels, if teaching proceeds lock-step, then some kids will be bored, other overwhelmed, and the lucky few in the middle will be challenged to the point where they can optimally learn.

One response to the diverse levels of student ability is tracking, or sorting children into different groups according to performance. This seems like a good idea on the surface. Each group should have a tighter spread of ability levels, expanding the number of students that can simultaneously experience the zone of proximal development. The downside to tracking is the way that it is usually received. Kids see their group as an intrinsic identity, not as a result of their level of effort. Tracking, when viewed as the result of intrinsic properties of the students, harms advanced students and struggling students alike by downplaying the role that massive amounts of deliberate practice plays on performance.

A precondition of deliberate practice is the ability to make the task incrementally easier or harder. In sports, this is usually straightforward: add weights to the bar, drive the ball farther, or run the same distance faster. In the professional world this kind of fine-tuning is much more difficult to achieve.

One of the reasons I believe computer programming is so difficult to learn is that the difficulty level of programming jumps from trivial to absurd in the blink of an eye. In my previous life as a programmer, I remember tooling along for hours or days and then bang, a seemingly insoluble problem appears. This state is best described as “the code doesn’t work, I don’t see why it doesn’t work, and I’m not even sure how to start figuring out why it doesn’t work.”

This was not an isolated incident. I recall taking introductory computer programming as an undergraduate. When these sort of show-stopper problems came up in programming projects, you went to the teaching assistant (TA) and they looked at it. About half the time, they were as stumped as you were. So you went upstairs to the professor’s office. I recall sitting for over an hour as a Ph.D. looked at my assignment and scratched his head before finally discovering the obscure bug that was crippling my program.

I found roadblocks of these types devastating both in my education and later in my programming career. Show-stoppers not only take you out of the zone of proximal development, but shut down learning and progress altogether. They arrest the cyclic flow of attempt, observe, and adjust that makes learning possible. In the professional world, getting stuck in this way is shameful and would be more shameful if it did not happen so frequently.

That is why I take off my hat to Bill Gates, above all the other examples cited by Gladwell. Gates definitely got in his 10,000 hours of practice, but he did so alone, on the roughest, earliest minicomputers. Somehow he was able to deal with his own show-stoppers without a more experienced coach to help him along. Somehow, consciously or unconsciously, he was able to break down the process of programming into bite-size chunks and avoid or overcome the maddeningly incomprehensible bugs that dogged me and many of my colleagues. Exactly how he did it, I cannot say. Surely the answer to this mystery would be worth more than all of Gates’ billions.

Motivation is Not Optional

When I was about 13, I had an Algebra teacher who kept a banner in his classroom. It read “[Mathematics] has its beauty, but not everyone sees it. -Confucius.” When students would become frustrated or discouraged, he would point to the banner. From this, I believe he meant to say that some people see the beauty in math, and some don’t. Those who don’t see the beauty have to get over it and slog through.

As much as I learned from this instructor and as much as I respect his skills to this day, I think he did his students a great disservice by dividing them into two distinct groups: the ones who see the beauty in math and those who do not. It’s far more accurate to say that most people see the beauty in math at least some of the time, and not at other times.

Seeing the beauty in math is an incredible advantage on account of two basic facts. The first fact is that it takes a lot of determined practice to become proficient in math. The second fact is that willpower is a limited resource. The motivation for continuing in the face of adversity can come from at least two sources: either the intrinsic beauty of the subject, or willpower. Students who study by willpower alone are condemned to conk out long before those who have intrinsic enjoyment of the material. That’s why I insist that enjoyment isn’t a nice-to-have, but an essential ingredient in long-term success at any endeavor.

Elsewhere in my academic career, I studied under teachers and professors who made it their job to convey the beauty of the subject matter to students. My grades in mathematics were never stellar, yet I gave my best performances when I had the tailwind of some intrinsic motivation. Had I known how important this factor would be at the time, I would have spent more time building it for myself.

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