Tag: Education

Why Can’t Someone Be Taught Until They’re Ready To Learn?

Clay Christensen is best known as the author of The Innovator’s Dilemma. He’s also the author of a new book, How Will You Measure Your Life?, which has some wonderful insights (see excerpts here and here).

The founder of 37Signals, Jason Fried, recently spent some time with Christensen and gained a key insight into why we can’t be taught until we’re ready to learn. Simply put, if you stop asking questions, you’ll stop learning.

Spending time with Clay leads to lots of interesting insights, but for me, there was one that stood out among all the others.

You’ve probably heard it said that someone can’t be taught until they’re ready to learn. I’ve heard it said that way too. It makes sense, and my experience tells me it’s mostly true. Why though? Why can’t someone be taught until they’re ready to learn?

Clay explained it in a way that I’ve never heard before and I’ll never forget again. Paraphrased slightly, he said: “Questions are places in your mind where answers fit. If you haven’t asked the question, the answer has nowhere to go. It hits your mind and bounces right off. You have to ask the question – you have to want to know – in order to open up the space for the answer to fit.”

What an insight.

What is Deliberate Practice?

You’ve probably been doing your job for a while. If you’re like most people, your performance has plateaued. Simply put, you’ve stopped getting better at what you do. This is because you don’t use deliberate practice to your advantage.

Deliberate Practice

Despite repetition, most people fail to become experts at what they do. It doesn’t matter how many years they spend they stop getting better.

Experience does not equate to expertise.

In Geoff Colvin’s book Talent Is Overrated he writes:

In field after field, when it comes to centrally important skills—stockbrokers recommending stocks, parole officers predicting recidivism, college admissions officials judging applicants—people with lots of experience were no better at their jobs than those with less experience.

Society has always recognized extraordinary individuals whose performance is truly superior. If I were to ask you why some people excel and others don’t, you’d probably say talent and effort. These responses are misleading.

Conveniently, claiming that talent is the basis for success means we can absolve ourselves of our own performance (or, as the case may be, lack thereof). The talent argument, despite its popularity, is wrong. Yet research tells a very different story on how people become experts (for a more detailed argument read Talent Is Overrated, the source of most of the quotes in this article).

Deliberate Practice

Research concludes that we need deliberate practice to improve performance. Unfortunately, deliberate practice isn’t something that most of us understand, let alone engage in on a daily basis. This helps explain why we can work at something for decades without really improving our performance.

Deliberate practice is hard. It hurts. But it works. More of it equals better performance and tons of it equals great performance.

Most of what we consider practice is really just playing around — we’re in our comfort zone.

When you venture off to the golf range to hit a bucket of balls what you’re really doing is having fun. You’re not getting better. Understanding the difference between fun and deliberate practice unlocks the key to improving performance.

Deliberate practice is characterized by several elements, each worth examining. It is activity designed specifically to improve performance, often with a teacher’s help; it can be repeated a lot; feedback on results is continuously available; it’s highly demanding mentally, whether the activity is purely intellectual, such as chess or business-related activities, or heavily physical, such as sports; and it isn’t much fun.

Let’s take a look at each of those to better understand what’s meant.

Designed to Improve Performance

The word designed is key. While enjoyable, practice lacking design is play and doesn’t offer improvement.

“In some fields, especially intellectual ones such as the arts, sciences, and business, people may eventually become skilled enough to design their own practice. But anyone who thinks they’ve outgrown the benefits of a teacher’s help should at least question that view. There’s a reason why the world’s best golfers still go to teachers.”

But it’s more than just the teachers’ knowledge that helps — it’s their ability to see you in ways you can’t see yourself.

“A chess teacher is looking at the same boards as the student but can see that the student is consistently overlooking an important threat. A business coach is looking at the same situations as a manager but can see, for example, that the manager systematically fails to communicate his intentions clearly.”

In theory, with the right motivations and some expertise, you can design a practice yourself. It’s likely, however, that you wouldn’t know where to start or how to structure activities.

Expertise, as the formula goes, requires going from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence to conscious competence and finally to unconscious competence. *

Teachers, or coaches, see what you miss and make you aware of where you’re falling short.

With or without a teacher, great performers deconstruct elements of what they do into chunks they can practice. They get better at that aspect and move on to the next.

Noel Tichy, professor at the University of Michigan business school and the former chief of General Electric’s famous management development center at Crotonville, puts the concept of practice into three zones: the comfort zone, the learning zone, and the panic zone.

Most of the time we’re practicing we’re really doing activities in our comfort zone. This doesn’t help us improve because we can already do these activities easily. On the other hand, operating in the panic zone leaves us paralyzed as the activities are too difficult and we don’t know where to start. The only way to make progress is to operate in the learning zone, which are those activities that are just out of reach.

Consider a chess tournament:

Skill improvement is likely to be minimized when facing substantially inferior opponents, because such opponents will not challenge one to exert maximal or even near-maximal effort when making tactical decisions, and problems or weaknesses in one’s play are unlikely to be exploited. At the same time, the opportunity for learning is also attenuated during matches against much strong opponents, because no amount of effort or concentration is likely to result in a positive outcome.*

Repeat

Repetition inside the comfort zone does not equal practice. Deliberate practice requires that you should be operating in the learning zone and you should be repeating the activity a lot with feedback.

Let us briefly illustrate the difference between work and deliberate practice. During a three hour baseball game, a batter may only get 5-15 pitches (perhaps one or two relevant to a particular weakness), whereas during optimal practice of the same duration, a batter working with a dedicated pitcher has several hundred batting opportunities, where this weakness can be systematically exploited. *

It’s no coincidence that Ted Williams, baseball’s greatest hitter, would literally practice hitting until his hands bled.

Feedback on results is continuously available

Practicing something without knowing whether you are getting better is pointless. Yet that is what most of us do everyday without thinking.

“You can work on technique all you like, but if you can’t see the effects, two things will happen: You won’t get any better, and you’ll stop caring.”

Feedback gets a little tricky when someone must subjectively interpret the results. While you don’t need a coach, this can be an area they add value.

“These are the situations in which a teacher, coach, or mentor is vital for providing crucial feedback.”

Mentally Demanding

Doing things we know how to do is fun and does not require a lot of effort. Deliberate practice, however, is not fun. Breaking down a task you wish to master into its constituent parts and then working on those areas systematically requires a lot of effort.

“The work is so great that it seems no one can sustain it for very long. A finding that is remarkably consistent across disciplines is that four or five hours a day seems to be the upper limit of deliberate practice, and this is frequently accomplished in sessions lasting no more than an hour to ninety minutes.”

Ben Franklin, an interesting example

Ben Franklin intuitively grasped the concept of deliberate practice. As a teenager Ben received a letter from his father saying his writing was inferior: “in elegance of expression, in method and in perspicuity, of which he convinced me by several instances,” as Franklin recalled.

“Ben responded to his father’s observations in several ways. First, he found examples of prose clearly superior to anything he could produce, a bound volume of the Spectator, the great English periodical written by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele. Any of us might have done something similar. But Franklin then embarked on a remarkable program that few of us would have ever thought of.

It began with his reading a Spectator article and marking brief notes on the meaning of each sentence; a few days later he would take up the notes and try to express the meaning of each sentence in his own words. When done, he compared his essay with the original, “discovered some of my faults, and corrected them.

One of the faults he noticed was his poor vocabulary. What could he do about that? He realized that writing poetry required an extensive “stock of words” because he might need to express any given meaning in many different ways depending on the demands of rhyme or meter. So he would rewrite Spectator essays in verse. …

Franklin realized also that a key element of a good essay is its organization, so he developed a method to work on that. He would again make short notes on each sentence in an essay, but would write each note on a separate slip of paper. He would then mix up the notes and set them aside for weeks, until he had forgotten the essay. At that point he would try to put the notes in their correct order, attempt to write the essay, and then compare it with the original; again, he “discovered many faults and amended them.”

Even without a teacher, Ben Franklin grasped deliberate practice.

The Role of Solitude

In her book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain writes:

Deliberate Practice is best conducted alone for several reasons. It takes intense concentration, and other people can be distracting. It requires deep motivation, often self-generated. But most important, it involves working on the task that’s most challenging to you personally. Only when you’re alone, Ericsson told me, can you “go directly to the part that’s challenging to you. If you want to improve what you’re doing, you have to be the one who generates the move. Imagine a group class—you’re the one generating the move only a small percentage of the time.”

***

Still curious? Learn more about deliberate practice in Talent Is Overrated and this New Yorker article by Dr. Atul Gawande.

An Algorithm for Solving Problems

“He (Richard Feynman) was always searching for patterns, for connections, for a new way of looking at something, but I suspect his motivation was not so much to understand the world as it was to find new ideas to explain. The act of discovery was not complete for him until he had taught it to someone else.”Daniel Hillis

***

The Feynman Algorithm, which is a simplification of Richard Feynman’s technique to learn anything, is a good all purpose algorithm for solving problems. Cal Newport explains:

  1. Simplify the problem down to an “essential puzzle.” Here’s how Danny Hillis explained Feynman’s use of simplicity: “He always started by asking very basic questions like, ‘What is the simplest example?’ or ‘How can you tell if the answer is right?’ He asked questions until he reduced the problem to some essential puzzle that he thought he would be able to solve. Then he would set to work.”
  2. Continually master new techniques and then apply them to your library of unsolved puzzles to see if they help. As mathematician Gian Carlo-Rota explained when describing Feynman’s use of this strategy: “Every once in a while there will be a hit, and people will say: ‘How did he do it? He must be a genius!’”

Neil Gaiman: One Of The Best Commencement Speeches Ever

Although Neil Gaiman never attended college, he gives one of the best commencement speeches ever. This is right up there with the Steve Jobs and David Foster Wallace commencement speeches.

People who know the rules know what is possible and what is impossible. You do not and you should not. The rules of what is possible and impossible were made by people who have not tested the bounds of possible by going beyond them – and you can.

The speech was so good it was turned into a book, Make Good Art.

The full talk runs about 19 minutes. If you can’t spare the time, openculture offers this distilled version:

  1. Embrace the fact that you’re young. Accept that you don’t know what you’re doing. And don’t listen to anyone who says there are rules and limits.
  2. If you know your calling, go there. Stay on track. Keep moving towards it, even if the process takes time and requires sacrifice.
  3. Learn to accept failure. Know that things will go wrong. Then, when things go right, you’ll probably feel like a fraud. It’s normal.
  4. Make mistakes, glorious and fantastic ones. It means that you’re out there doing and trying things.
  5. When life gets hard, as it inevitably will, make good art. Just make good art.
  6. Make your own art, meaning the art that reflects your individuality and personal vision.
  7. Now a practical tip. You get freelance work if your work is good, if you’re easy to get along with, and if you’re on deadline. Actually you don’t need all three. Just two.
  8. Enjoy the ride, don’t fret the whole way. Stephen King gave that piece of advice to Neil years ago.
  9. Be wise and accomplish things in your career. If you have problems getting started, pretend you’re someone who is wise, who can get things done. It will help you along.
  10. Leave the world more interesting than it was before.

Still curious? Here are some other awesome commencement speeches: Michael Lewis — Don’t Eat Fortune’s Cookie; David Foster Wallace — The Truth With A Whole Lot Of Rhetorical Bullshit Pared Away; and Steve Jobs.

Do You Know What You Don’t Know?

You probably don’t know as much as you think you do. When put to the test, most people find they can’t explain the workings of everyday things they think they understand.

Don’t believe me? Find an object you use daily (a zipper, a toilet, a stereo speaker) and try to describe the particulars of how it works. You’re likely to discover unexpected gaps in your knowledge. In psychology, we call this cognitive barrier the illusion of explanatory depth. It means you think you fully understand something that you actually don’t.

We witness this all the time with the use of buzz words (think “strategic,” “streamline,” etc.).

While often used, the meaning of these words is usually unclear and masks gaps in our knowledge, “serving as placeholders that gloss concepts we don’t fully understand.”

These words are similar to Aphorisms in the sense that they stifle informed debate — you’re expected to get the gist of what people mean and move on.

For example, several years ago, I attended a corporate meeting where the vice president spoke about streamlining business practices in the coming year. During the talk, executives around the room nodded in agreement. Afterward, though, many of them discussed what streamlining actually meant. None of the people who had nodded in agreement could exactly define the mechanics of how to streamline a business practice.

One tip:

Explain concepts to yourself as you learn them. Get in the habit of self-teaching. Your explanations will reveal your own knowledge gaps and identify words and concepts whose meanings aren’t clear.

Still curious? The Feynman Technique is designed to overcome the illusion of explanatory depth and help you actually understand.

Source

Ten Commandments For Living From Philosopher Bertrand Russell

bertrand-russell

The Ten Commandments that, as a teacher, I should wish to promulgate, might be set forth as follows:

1. Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.

2. Do not think it worthwhile to proceed by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.

3. Never try to discourage thinking for you are sure to succeed.

4. When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children, endeavor to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.

5. Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.

6. Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.

7. Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.

8. Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.

9. Be scrupulously truthful, even if the truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.

10. Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool’s paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness.

Still curious? Russell is the author of many books including Why I Am Not a Christian, History of Western Philosophy, and The Problems of Philosophy.