Author: Andrew Bell, SMGS Principal

This article first appeared in SMGS newsletter, Aspects on Friday, 18th May.

Peak Performance

I recently read the book, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, by Ericsson & Pool. The authors describe how certain individuals develop their performance to reach excellence, while others with seemingly similar capability only reach mediocre levels of performance. I, and other teachers at SMGS, have talked previously about the importance of a Growth Mindset (and referenced Carol Dweck’s book in particular). This research aligns well with the work on Growth Mindset, though it takes it in a different direction too by looking closely at why some reach expert status and others don’t.

Some principles have relevance to our students in their learning (of anything) and may be of interest to you. For instance, the first is the 10,000 hour rule. Ericsson first researched expert violinists and found that this was around the investment of time required to be expert in this instrument. The principle was then applied to a broader range of performance areas, beyond music. Malcolm Gladwell (in his book Outliers) popularised this ‘rule’ and elaborated further. However, additional research by Ericsson & Pool details that it is not as simple as the 10,000 hour rule to become expert in any field; rather, it is how that time is invested when practising.

According to Ericsson & Pool, there are three categories, or types, of practice that can be identified. I wonder if you can relate to any or all of these. The first is naïve practicewhich is characterised by mindless repetitive practice; going through the motions; ticking the box that the time has been completed. In schools, we see students who rush to complete their work but there is no quality to the work. Their pride is in finishing, not what they produced, or learnt. The approach is to read something and say, ‘I tried but couldn’t do it’, rather than analyse what the inhibitors were and address them. Excuses also come into play as reasons why something was performed poorly.

The second is more advanced and is called purposeful practice – where the practice is more defined in relation to what will be achieved and specific goals are set for that practice period; it identifies the outcomes to be accomplished for that practice session. Examples might include playing a piece of music without making a mistake, and replaying that over and over until that is achieved, say, three times in a row. Or, it may be until a basketball player makes ten consecutive shots, or a student can recite a speech flawlessly. However, what is missing here is a focus on the process, because the focus is on the outcome.

The final and highest level of practice, described as the ‘gold standard’ of practice, is deliberate practice – where mindfulness is achieved and there is a strong analytical consciousness permeating the practice session; it is focused; it involves a feedback loop to identify what is working effectively and what is not; and then setting about improving those areas that are identified as weaknesses or in need of specific improvement. Deliberate practice takes an individual out of their comfort zone to the edge of their capability at that point in time, with an intent to heighten their capacity for higher level performance. This type of practice builds on purposeful practice and infuses a focus on the process to lead to a particular outcome, and eventually break new ground.

A key to deliberate practice is to create mental representations. The authors point to some of Ericsson’s previous research as evidence of how deliberate practice leads to excellence. An example was research from the 1970s which involved remembering single digit numbers verbally communicated to an individual at one-second intervals. The participant then needs to repeat the same numbers in sequence. In short, most of us can manage between six to nine numbers on average. With deliberate practice, participants in this research managed to push those boundaries and, after initially recalling six to nine digits like most people, grew those numbers to twenty, forty and then eighty. Further participants then grew to recalling over two hundred digits, in order. The world record, as I understand, is now over four hundred digits. Those individuals are not extraordinary compared to the rest of us, but they did develop methods of deliberate practice to achieve extraordinary results. Those who did not do this, did not demonstrate extraordinary results. The key to these achievements was to make the data meaningful. Some used digits as times/dates/calendar years; others formed them into athletic race times; all grouped them so they were not recalling eighty, two hundred or four hundred individual numbers, but fewer numbers (even though the number became larger) in groups of three, four or five, for example.

A message here for our young people of school age (and anyone who wants to learn effectively) is to ensure that practice occurs on a regular (daily) basis; the practice is purposeful and deliberate; the content must be made meaningful to shift it from short-term to long-term memory for there to be any chance to recall it later; and, for complex problems, the data must be understood to use it flexibly. So, as educators, it is important for us to encourage meaningful, mindful and purposeful work from our students and to insist on that if we are to really challenge students to reach their full potential.