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A necessary struggle: Deep practice and skill mastery

“Struggle.” It’s a term we usually reserve for extreme situations. The struggle for freedom. The struggle for power. The struggle for survival.

The struggle to learn? Is this a struggle we should welcome?

Yes. After researching hotbeds of various talents, Daniel Coyle concludes in his book “The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How.” that “deep practice” is a key to mastery and top performance. Coyle’s deep practice is characterized by:

  • Mindfulness. A Brazilian boy learns a soccer move by trying, failing, stopping and thinking — a few attempts, then a pause. Coyle describes what precedes the boy’s breakthrough: “He stops and thinks again. He does it even more slowly, breaking the move down to its component parts — this, this, and that.” Deep practice involves self-talk as the individual moves from articulating to executing each step. And self-talk requires slowing down: “going slow helps the practicer to develop … a working perception of the skill’s internal blueprints — the shape and rhythm of the interlocking skill circuits.”
  • Struggle. Mastering a skill requires “operating at the edge” of one’s ability — the point at which failure is not only possible but also likely. Without challenge, the brain lazes into its comfort zone and merely reinforces current abilities. Coyle describes “operating at the edge” as “experiences where you’re 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 you’re realizing it.” In fact, according to Coyle, “[s]truggle is not optional — it’s neurologically required” to engage the brain in skill building.
  • Repetition. One-time mastery is not sufficient for permanent ability to develop. Neurological connections and myelination are like pathways through a forest: They emerge as traffic increases. However, Coyle makes an important distinction between mindless repetition and repetition that improves performance. Progressive challenge, even while a skill is being mastered, keeps the individual engaged and the brain active. One way to increase challenge is to continually broaden the context in which the skill is useful.

In the classroom

We teach countless skills, including cognitive skills — identifying main ideas or revising writing for modifiers — and physical skills — forming letters in handwriting or throwing a ball in physical education. Teachers regularly provide how-to instruction. So, how can we apply Coyle’s deep practice to teaching?

  • Slow down initial practice. Rushing promotes shallow practice that prevents mastery and retention. One way I’ve found to slow students down and engage more thinking is to remove whatever instrument is needed for application — a pencil, a ball, text to be read — before presenting practice material. Then, after presenting the practice prompt, I talk students through the skill’s steps, encouraging them to envision each step and repeat it to themselves. Once we’ve thought through all of the steps and have them correctly ordered, I have students reach for the needed instrument. I describe this as working on “accuracy first” before focusing on efficiency. Accuracy and efficiency are the hallmarks of skill mastery. As students practice in this way, the thinking time can be shortened until students are approaching automaticity with the skill. The key is not only to slow down the actual skill action but also to ignite thinking about each step of the skill before taking action; the thinking fosters accuracy and retention.
  • Increase the challenge to the point of struggle. As accuracy and efficiency become evident, add variables to the practice. One hundred repetitions of the same skill at the same level are less effective than one hundred scenarios of slightly increasing difficulty. Increasing challenge amps up mindfulness, which deepens learning and fosters retention. Teaching how to identify a main idea? Begin with short passages that have overt topic sentences. Then increase the passage length and complexity. Then introduce passages that have main ideas but no overt topic sentences. Keep students “operating on the edge,” and as the challenge increases, encourage a return to slower, more intentional skill application.
  • Broaden the context. Expand the areas in which the skill can be used. For example, move from isolated equations to word problems to real-world scenarios in math. Move from revising preprinted sentences to revising prepared connected text to revising student-generated passages in writing. Move from the textbook and desk to the world beyond. Ask yourself, “How do professionals use this skill in the real world?” Simulating that real-world practice increases the challenge and helps students transfer the skill to real-world scenarios.

Coyle discovered coaches who were effective teachers, committed individuals who understood what composed a great athletic performance and knew how to scaffold a skill and teach it mindfully. With such guidance, developing athletes master distinct skills and combine them for winning performances.

Deep practice = mindful practice + increasing challenge + strategic feedback. Whether it’s serving a tennis ball, skipping across the gymnasium or solving linear equations, struggle invites deep practice and ignites the brain’s skill-learning abilities. We equip champions, not by making everything easy to perform once but by engaging learners in the “neurologically required” struggle.

Kevin D. Washburn is the executive director of Clerestory Learning, author of instructional-design model Architecture of Learning and instructional-writing program Writer’s Stylus, and co-author of an instructional-reading program used by schools nationwide. He is the author of “The Architecture of Learning: Designing Instruction for the Learning Brain” and is a member of the International Mind, Brain and Education Society and the Learning & the Brain Society. Washburn has taught in classrooms from third grade through graduate school.