In Search of Excellence: Effective Practice – Part 2

Part 2: Deep Practice

This is the second installment in a nine part article.  If you have not yet read Part 1, you should begin with that:

Part 1: “The Talent Code”:
Part 1 introduces Daniel Coyle’s book, “The Talent Code”.

Part 2: The Myelin Factor:
This section presents a short course in neuroscience centered around myelin and the role it plays in building new skills.

Counting Treats with a very interested audience

A very interested observer

Deep Practice
Here’s how Coyle describes deep practice:

“When I started visiting talent hotbeds, I expected to be dazzled.  I expected to witness world-class speed, power, and grace.  Those expectations were met and exceeded – about half of the time. But that was only half of the time.  The other half I witnessed something very different: moments of slow, fitful struggle.  It was as if a herd of deer suddenly encountered a hillside coated with ice.  They slammed to a halt; they stopped, looked, and thought carefully before taking each step.  Making progress became a matter of small failures, a rhythmic pattern of botches. . . . The talent hotbeds are engaged in an activity that seems, on the face of it, strange and surprising.  They are seeking out the slippery hills.  They are purposely operating at the edges of their ability, so they will make mistakes, and somehow making mistakes is making them better.”

The question Coyle wanted to understand was how?

“Deep practice is built on a paradox: struggling in certain targeted ways – operating at the edges of your ability, where you make mistakes – makes you smarter. Or to put it a different way, experiences where you are forced to slow down, make errors, and correct them – as you would if you were walking up an ice-covered hill, slipping and stumbling as you go – end up making you swift and graceful without your realizing it.”

Most of us would read this and want to run the opposite way.  Struggle.  Mistakes.  That’s not how we want to learn.     And it certainly doesn’t sound like clicker training where we work hard to avoid putting our animals through frustrating learning experiences.  Is there a contradiction here?  It turns out that the deep practice techniques Coyle described actually fit beautifully into a clicker training framework.

The Sweet Spot
We may want to learn without struggle, but according to the researchers who are discovering how myelin works – it’s a terrible way to learn if you really want to become good at something.  Coyle quoted Robert Bjork, chair of psychology at UCLA:

“We tend to think of our memory as a tape recorder, but that’s wrong.  It’s a living structure, a scaffold of nearly infinite size. The more we generate impulses, encountering and overcoming difficulties, the more scaffolding we build.  The more scaffolding we build, the faster we learn.”

The key to deep practice is picking a goal that is just beyond your present abilities and targeting your efforts towards achieving that goal.  Or as Bjork put it:

“It’s all about finding the sweet spot.  There’s an optimal gap between what you know and what you’re trying to do.  When you find that sweet spot, learning takes off.”

That sounds like a good training plan.  The sweet spot is the puzzle we set.  Find the answer, and, click, you get a treat.  If the puzzle is too easy, the learner won’t progress.  If the puzzle is too hard the learner will get frustrated and quit.  The sweet spot stretches the learner just enough so he is always reaching for the next small increment of success.

Coyle summarized the discussion of myelin and deep practice with this:

“Deep practice is a strange concept for two reasons.  The first is that it cuts against our intuition about talent.  Our intuition tells us that practice relates to talent in the same way that a whetstone relates to a knife: it’s vital but useless without a solid blade of so-called natural ability.  Deep practice raises an intriguing possibility: that practice might be the way to forge the blade itself.

The second reason deep practice is a strange concept is that it takes events that we normally strive to avoid – namely, mistakes – and turns them into skills.  To understand how deep practice works, it’s first useful to consider the unexpected but crucial importance of errors to the learning process.”

And then he asked what to me was a key question where horses are involved: “How do you get good at something when making a mistake has a decent chance of killing you?”

Coyle used as his example the high death rate for pilots in the early days of aviation.  How do you learn to fly when mistakes can be fatal?  The answer was you develop simulators.

“The Air Corps pilots who trained in the first simulators were no braver or smarter than the ones who crashed.  They simply had the opportunity to practice more deeply.”

Coming Soon – Part 3: Equine Simulators

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