Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise

At INSET in October, I made reference to the ‘science of expertise’. This was influenced by the research of Anders Ericsson, and in particular his book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, which I had just finished reading.

Anders Ericsson is the world’s leading scientist on elite performance and deliberate practice. His research involves finding expert performers who can reliably do things that others can’t, and then figuring out how they’re able to do it.

Peak is the result of more than three decades of research. The book is filled with fascinating studies, eye-opening facts, and entertaining stories. For me, it really complements the work that we are doing as a school with Teaching Walkthrus, and the importance of automatising simple, effective routines through our focus on Expert Instruction. One of the things I like most about Ericsson’s findings is that they have implications not only for us, as teachers refining our expertise in the classroom, but for our pupils, and the ways in which we can support their progress from novice to expert.

I do my best to summarise some of the key ideas below.

In the foreword, Ericsson introduces the idea that expertise is not inherent or predisposed from birth. Instead, Ericsson asserts that every human brain possesses the potential to develop expert performance through a process that he describes as systematic deliberate practice.

Chapter 1 considers the power of purposeful practice. Most effective types of practice all follow the same set of general principles. The method needs to take into account what works and what does not, in driving changes in the body and the brain.

More experience is not automatically better. Research has shown that once a person reaches a level of ‘acceptable performance’, automatic addition of years of more practice do not lead to improvement. This is as true for doctors as for teachers and racing car drivers. The difference is in purposeful practice.

In Chapter 2, Ericsson considers the idea of harnessing adaptability. The brain changes in response to extended training. This is also referred as plasticity or neuroplasticity. If you practice something enough, your brain will repurpose neurons to help with the task even if they have another job to do.

Cognitive and physical changes caused by training require upkeep. Stop training and they begin to go away.  However, it is important to remember that, with deliberate practice, the goal is not just to reach your potential, but to make things possible that were not possible before. The way forward is to keep pushing against the status-quo.

Chapter 3 proposes that the key to expertise is to build up better and more effectively usable mental representations. According to Ericsson, improvements in performance come down to improvements in mental representations. The better a chess player, the better his mental representations for the game of chess. The better a football player, the better her mental representations for playing football.

It takes years of practice for chess players to recognise that patterns. It helps if they study games played by masters. You analyse a position in depth, predicting the next move and if you go wrong you go back and guide out what you missed.

Research has shown that the time spent in this type of analysis, not the time spent in playing chess with others, is the single most important predictor of a chess player’s ability. The way a chess grandmaster ‘sees’ the board is quite different from the way a novice does.

In Chapter 4, Ericsson suggests that some approaches to training are more effective than others. He draws a distinction between naïve practice and purposeful practice, which he calls The Gold Standard. Naïve practice is not enough to improve our performance. What we need is a more focused and deliberate approach. Purposeful practice is what allows us to trigger adaptation, create a new normal, and continuously improve our performance.

There are four characteristics of purposeful practice.

  • Purposeful practice has well-defined, specific goals.
  • Purposeful practice is focused.
  • Purposeful practice involves feedback.
  • Purposeful practice requires getting out of one’s comfort zone.

Malcolm Gladwell famously wrote about the ‘10,000 hours rule’. He got the practice part broadly right but, according to Ericsson, did not specify that the practice must be purposeful to lead to improved performance.

In Chapter 5, Ericsson gives offers examples of the principles of deliberate practice ‘on the job’.  The chapter describes the US Navy’s Top Gun programme, and how an elite training force was built using the very best pilots in the Navy. Rather than sending out the best pilots to fight, they instead used them as expert coaches to train student pilots. A programme of deliberate practice led to dramatic results. From an average of shooting down 1 enemy jet in 5 encounters, the students went up to shooting 1 enemy jet every encounter.The underlying principles of this initiative were:

  • Determine with some certainty who the experts already are
  • Figure out what underlies their superior performance. This is research into the mental representations of the experts.
  • Evolving a language to address the representations is essential to breaking open this path for many others.

Chapter 6 considers the role of deliberate practice in everyday life. Deliberate practice is for everyone who dreams of doing something. It could be anything: coding, drawing, juggling, golfing, playing an instrument or a game.

In Chapter 7, Ericsson examines the road to extraordinary, i.e. the stages required to help a child become an expert:

  • Start out as early as possible
  • Become serious: practice routine regular; motivate intrinsically
  • Commitment: seek best teachers

Chapter 8 unpicks the myth of natural talent. Studies of chess players have shown that practice is the major factor in their success. IQ had no noticeable role (in fact, there was some negative co-relation to IQs because those with lower IQ, tended to practice more). Those with higher IQ do learn faster in the beginning.

The real role of innate characteristics is in initial jump start, and in shaping how likely a person is to engage in deliberate practice.

The final chapter, Chapter 9, examines the work of University of British Columbia, Professor Carl Weiman. Working with a team of instructors across 850 students, Weiman used inexperienced teachers to reproduce remarkable learning results on a repeated basis. While the traditional batches scored 41% on average, these groups scored 74%.

The underlying design ideas was if facts, concepts and rules are built as a mental representation for doing something — they need not be juggled independently subject to limits of short-term memory. They can directly go into long term memory. Individual pieces become part of an interconnected pattern that provides context and meaning to information, making it easier to work with.

My summary, of course, does not do justice to the depth and detail with which Ericsson supports his assertions. This book left me in no doubt that the human brain – and that’s any human brain – has the capacity for expert performance. This has significant implications for our practice both in and out of the classroom.

If you’re interested, you can get yourself a copy of the book here.

Thanks for reading!

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