The big insight with deliberate practice is the idea of focusing on skills instead of knowledge.
The obvious example is learning, say, tennis. Sitting in a tennis theory class that explains how to use the racket isn’t all that useful, obviously. It makes intuitive sense for us that we must get out on the field and try things. And, as we try things, we will hopefully have a coach who corrects us when we do the wrong things. That is the difference between developing the skill of how to hit the ball versus simply possessing the knowledge of how to hit the ball.
While this connection is easy to make when we think of sports, it is harder to make this connection with knowledge work or science. In a fascinating deliberate practice experiment in the University of British Columbia, Professors converted a part of the Physics curriculum from lecture notes to in-class discussions facilitated with interactive questions and clickers. The idea here was to move from knowledge transmission to actually helping students develop the skills of reasoning like real world physicists. They executed this with graduate students who were teaching for the first time and improvement was fantastic – 2.5x on a standard test compared to the control group.
This has all sorts of implications for how we think about training in the professional world. A lot of training is still about knowledge transmission versus skill development. And, even if it is skill development, it is done once a year.
As I get back to the working world post graduation in a few weeks, there are a couple of interesting questions on my mind – how do I use the principles of deliberate practice in my work? and how do I use the knowledge vs. skills idea to develop processes to get better?
Deliberate practice has transformed the way we get better in fields like sports and music. It will be much harder to use its principles in fields where progress is less easily measured. But, it can be done.
We’ll just have to stay with the problem a lot longer.