Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Learning by Doing ... Perfect Practice Makes Perfect ... Getting in Position Isn't Enough for Mastery ... Spending Time on Task and Developing the Habit of Continuous and Rapid Improvement are Essential

Learning by doing is a simple requirement of acquiring expertise.

The mastery of any task, skill or idea boils down to three simple and doable practices: (1) Getting in Position; (2) Spending Sufficient Time on Task; and (3) Developing the Habit of Continuous and Rapid Improvement.

How individuals become what most people later mistakenly refer to as "natural athletes" is a great way to explain these three simple yet profound keys to success.

First, there's the 'showing up and acting right' foundational piece. Practice is essential but practice doesn't make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.

But first we have to attend practice and get in the gym, on the field or wherever else our chosen athletic expertise is to be achieved over hours, weeks, months and years. And that requires countless hours of time on task combined with the habit of improvement (getting better each day by doing the right things right) and being instructed by qualified teachers and coaches. Genuine expertise comes only from sustained effort and finally getting "it" right, whatever "it" is. Perfect practice, in other words.

And so it is with academics as well. Why more people don't understand and embrace that simple 1-2-3 formula for success has long been one of life's great mysteries to me.

How We Should Be Teaching Math is subtitled "Achieving 'conceptual' understanding doesn't mean true mastery. For that, you need practice:"

"One of my engineering students recently approached me with a mixture of anger and befuddlement, thrusting toward me a quiz sheet covered with red pen marks: "I just don't see how I could have done so poorly. I understood it when you taught it in class."

I smiled encouragingly, but inside I sighed. The semester was just beginning. I hadn't had time to disabuse the student's naïveté. He still thought that because he "understood" the material, he was all set.

I'm now a professor of engineering, but in my mid-20s I was an artsy language lover who had flunked her way through elementary-, middle- and high-school math and science. What I discovered when I started over at age 26—first tackling remedial middle-school math and then working my way toward a Ph.D. in systems engineering—is that a conceptual understanding only gets you so far.

Conceptual understanding has become the mother lode of today's approach to education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics—known as the STEM disciplines. However, an "understanding-centric approach" by educators can create problems. . . .

True experts have a profound conceptual understanding of their field. But the expertise built the profound conceptual understanding, not the other way around. There's a big difference between the "ah-ha" light bulb, as understanding begins to glimmer, and real mastery.
. . . the development of true expertise involves extensive practice . . . . This involves plenty of repetition in a flexible variety of circumstances. In the hands of poor teachers, this repetition becomes rote—droning reiteration of easy material. With gifted teachers, however, this subtly shifting and expanding repetition mixed with new material becomes a form of deliberate practice and mastery learning.

True mastery doesn't mean you use crutches like laying out 25 beans in 5-by-5 rows to demonstrate that 5 × 5 = 25. It means that when you see 5 × 5, in a flash, you know it's 25—it's a single neural chunk that's as easy to pull up as a ribbon. Having students stop to continually check and prove their understanding can actually impede their understanding, in the same way that continually focusing on every aspect of a golf swing can impede the development of the swing.

I'm a big proponent of active learning in the classroom—allowing students to interact with one another, and with me, to experience that light-bulb-going-on effect. But I'm also fully aware that just because a student might think he understood an idea in a classroom doesn't mean that he truly understood the idea. It certainly doesn't mean the student will retain that idea. And it absolutely doesn't mean that he has mastered the idea.

My angry, befuddled student, and many like him in my class, went on to take quiz after carefully designed quiz—all on the computer, and all designed to help students get the practice that would allow them to gain true mastery. When the semester ended, and evaluations on the class came (with an average of 4.9 out of 5 for a 65-student class), one comment typified many: "I really enjoyed this technique. At first, I wasn't too sure about it. Then it was tedious. However, then I realized how well I was doing on the online quizzes and the in-class quizzes and knew that something must be working!"

Understanding is key. But not superficial, light-bulb moment of understanding. In STEM, true and deep understanding comes with the mastery gained through practice."

Summing Up

The formula for developing expertise is actually quite simple.

It's all about learning by doing.

But learning by doing takes lots of time and repetition.

And that's true for academics and learning generally.

So for the young, acquiring lots of knowledge by following the simple formula of (1) getting in position, (2) spending time on task and (3) developing the habit of continuous and rapid improvement are the essentials leading to mastery --- of anything deemed by them to be worth mastering.

That's my take.

Thanks. Bob.

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