Mrs. Coselian, my piano teacher, had her work cut out for her when I first climbed onto her piano bench. I was a distractible 5-year-old who would rather be playing outside than tickling ivory. Her persistence was great, however, and under her guidance and coaxing I eventually learned to play. Today, I am grateful for Mrs. Coselian’s musical tutelage, but even more grateful that she taught me something far more useful (for me) than concertos and arias: the habit of deliberate practice, or practicing with a purpose. This incredibly useful skill is the learning theme for “Catch that Question!”, Appisode 3 of Leo’s Pad, and the topic of today’s post.
Mrs. Coselian, like all piano teachers, believed in practice practice practice. I didn’t mind, as long as I could stick to right-hand melodies, which I could follow easily to make fun little tunes. But Mrs. Coselian insisted that instead I practice things I found hard, like complicated passages, intonation, and most of all, the left-hand rhythm. So, much to my chagrin, I spent more time practicing things I was bad at than things I was good at. And at first, it was a drag.
But eventually, and somewhat magically, a passable song would emerge.
The “magic”, it turned out, was that Mrs. Coselian was helping me to engage in what experts call deliberate practice—the act of looking for specific weaknesses in a skill and using practice purposefully to improve them.
At first, Mrs. Coselian and I split the work of deliberate practice: She identified the weaknesses, and I practiced them with an eye toward improvement. Eventually, I could find and practice the problem areas of my songs without her help. I even appreciated the struggle that ensued as I tackled each challenge. It took a while (years!) for me to develop the deliberate-practice habit fully, but once I did, I found I could apply it to any activity—math homework, doodling, soccer, and later college classes—to move far beyond my current level. Now that’s what I call practical magic.
There’s practice, and then there’s deliberate practice. The idea comes from the finding that experts in any domain—chess, music, math, skiing, etc.—maximize their progress by targeting problem areas. As opposed to regular old practice, which can quickly devolve into half-hearted mechanical repetition, deliberate practice involves working very intentionally to improve weak areas. Coaches or instructors help drive deliberate practice for their students. However, coaching may not be necessary, and it’s certainly not sufficient. The practicer himself must also be of the mindset of practicing for purposeful improvement, not just practicing to practice or because someone told him to.
One interesting tidbit is that deliberate practice is not fun. Experts usually describe it as hard and effortful, with the payoff coming in the fruits of the labor rather than in the labor itself. The rule of thumb is that 10,000 hours of practice creates expertise. But 10,000 hours of deliberate practice beats 10,000 hours of perfunctory practice by a mile.
Instilling the habit of deliberate practice in preschoolers
Developing the habit of deliberate practice in youngsters involves two parts. First is convincing children that practice with a purpose is worthwhile. Second is developing the ability for children to identify on their own the aspects of a skill that need improvement.
For the first part, even if you’re not inclined to turn your child into a violin expert at age 3, you can help children see the utility of purposeful practice by guiding them to take on targeted practice and then celebrating their accomplishments when those are overcome. For example, when learning to get dressed in the morning, if your child has a particularly hard time zipping up his jacket, you can challenge him to practice with the zipper several times (rather than doing it for him). Then, celebrate him for practicing something that was so hard for him to do.
The second part—teaching kids to identify for themselves the things they should practice—is harder. Start by identifying targets of practice for your child, but try to engage your child in your thought processes as you do so. Eventually, children should be able to find the things to practice on their own. As a side note, knowing to identify weaknesses is a general skill, but knowing how to identify them may be domain specific. A basketball player can find things to work on in her own jump shot, but she might have a hard time figuring out her weaknesses in biology class.
Practice makes permanent
As people begin to recognize that how you practice matters, the age old adage “practice makes perfect” has rightfully been supplanted by “practice makes permanent”. Routine practice makes routine results, but deliberate practice brings deliberate results, for overall better learning.