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If Mastery is Our Goal, Then Deep Practice is our Path

February 22, 2011

In Dan Coyle’s book, The Talent Code, he writes about deep practice in chapter 4, Three Rules of Deep Practice.  The journey he takes in the book to explore where talent comes from leads him to this idea of deep practice, the 10,000 hours of practice over a period of time to master a high-level skill.

He relates the story of Adriaan de Groot, a Dutch psychologist, who studied how chess masters became good at their skill.  What he found was that when you compare masters to the average chess player, masters are extremely adapt at seeing patterns on the chess board. 

 They were not seeing individual pieces, but recognizing patterns.

When he randomized the pieces the masters were no better than amateurs because their patterning strategies became useless.  De Groot concludes that

Skill consists of identifying important elements and grouping them into a meaningful framework.

Psychologists refer to this skill as chunking.

Coyle illustrates chunking with this example.  Try to memorize these two sentences:

  • We climbed Mount Everest on a Tuesday morning.
  • Gn inromya Dseut Anotser ev e Tnuomde bmilcew.

As he points out, you can easily remember the first sentence but not the second, even though the second sentence contains all the same letters as the first.  The letters in the first sentence are “chunked” into patterns that are recognizable, while the second one is not.

The major conclusion de Groot drew from his research was that skill development, even of the highest order, is a result of “nested accumulation of small, discrete circuits.”  He is referring to the neural circuits we create and reinforce as we develop patterns, and practice the patterns over and over again.  When a person engages in deep practice, whether learning to master a backhand in tennis or intricate chess moves, he is building enduring skills that are encoded in the neural circuits of the brain.


Rule One: Chunk it Up

With rule one, there is the implication that you will try, explore, fail, retry, explore some more, and then maybe succeed.  This cycle may go on and on until the patterns are built in your neural network.

 In reading this idea in Talent Code, I can only wonder whether we use these principles in our classroom to help students engage in deep practice.  I certainly think we see this operating on athletic fields, where students practice four days a week and have one or more competitive contests to test their skill development.  They get feedback from their coach on how they performed and go back to the practice space to work on skills that need refinement.  This cycle continues throughout an athletic season.  Deep practice leads to mastery.

 Is there a counterpart in the classroom with regard to the essential skills of the 21st Century: collaboration, creative and critical thinking, communication, problem-solving, reading comprehension, information literacy, and leadership?  Do teachers create lesson plans that embed these skills into the fabric of their lessons so that students engage in deep practice such that their neuronal networks become well constructed?  I wonder how teachers would answer this question and then verify that his or her lessons helped nurture the deep practice needed for students to mastery 21st Century skills.

Rule Two: Repeat It

Coyle writes:

Repetition is invaluable and irreplaceable.

I understand the importance of repetition in deep practice.  It makes total sense to me provided the student is practicing something that has meaning and value.  Coyle continues his insight into repetition with the statement:

Spending more time is effective–but only if you’re still in the sweet spot at the edge of your capabilities.

 As educators, I think we see this in our classrooms all the time.  The level of challenge for students has to be stretching them but not so much that they give up because they see the goal as not reachable.  They need to be in the sweet spot.  The challenge for the teacher is that the sweet spot will vary from student to student and depend on the discipline or topic.

 Rule Three: Learn to Feel It

Coyle shares a list of words that people used when they described what it was like being in a state of their most productive practice.  The words most commonly used were:

 Attention, Connect, Build, Whole, Alert, Focus, Mistake, Repeat, Tiring, Edge Awake

I think this list of words is very revealing.  I wonder how this would compare with a list of words that students would use to describe what they feel like or experience in their classrooms.  Do we teach our students to learn to “feel” the deep practice that leads to mastery?  Coyle shares a phrase from Martha Graham, the famous dance instructor, about “straining toward a target and falling just short,” she refers to this as:

 Divine dissatisfaction

Let me come full circle to why this piece from Coyle’s book, The Talent Code, strikes me as very interesting for educators to ponder.  If we want students to engage in the learning environment and come away with a deeper understanding (see my blog post, What is Understanding?) of the content and skills we value, we will need to give careful consideration to Coyle’s three rules that lead to deep practice–chunk it up into patterns, practice repetition, and help students learn to feel what it means to engage in deep practice.

So where do I see this happening in a classroom?  At Westminster, Jill Gough and some of her colleagues are helping students learn how to engage in deep practice when it comes to assessment.  The second chance model for doing test corrections (see post at, Experiments in Learning by Doing, Being Slow…Mindset…2nd Chances…Learning) allows students to repeat, practice, slow down, relearn, and improve their understanding.  Ms. Gough, a member of the CFT Faculty Cohort for two years, designed an action research project to develop and test her model.  It has proven to be so successful that she has built it into her Algebra 1 structure and writes about it in her blog.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. June 4, 2011 5:15 am

    I’m very interested in picking up this book. Thanks for the excellent synopsis.

    I have a thought about how to engage children into a deeper practice. I read an book not to long ago that spoke about a scientific experiment conducted with a class of children. Half of the children, when they did well on a fairly simple exam, were privately told, “Wkell done! You must be very smart!” The other half of the class were privately told, “Well done! You must have worked hard on this!”

    The praise continued in this way for the remainder of the year. The psychological results for the children were startling.

    The kids that were congratulated for being smart began to fear any situation which would ‘unmask’ them and show them to be ‘not smart’. That meant they did not try new things and were afraid of losing this status… so much so that some of them resorted to cheating in order to maintain it. The designation loaded them down with self doubts and fear which slowed down their ability to forge ahead towards mastery.

    Meanwhile, the children who were congratulated for being hard workers gained a more active and robust interest in mastery. They applied themselves more readily to new challenges and found greater resources in themselves to dig in and apply themselves. While marks were likely just as important to them as the “smart” kids, the did not face the same debilitating paralyzation their counterparts experienced and they simply reapplied themselves and tried harder.

    I’m a big believer in setting up one’s environment to win. Part of the process of mastery has to do with the thoughts we allow ourselves to believe and the stories we tell our children about how mastery is achieved.

    Don’t you think?
    Mathieu Powell – “Old Fathers and New Dads”


    • June 4, 2011 11:20 am


      I think this work you reference is very important. Is it the work of Carol Dweck, Mindset. She is a psychologist from Stanford University that has worked for many years on the influence of the mindset we bring to our work and how it affects our attitudes and performance. She contrasts the fixed versus the growth mindset. The experiment you described fits what her research has discovered. The fixed mindset children, those who think their intelligence is fixed and cannot be changed, struggle when it comes to managing their expectations and those of others. Whereas the growth mindset children are more resilient and adaptable because they see effort as the key to successful performance. Interesting ideas and very relevant to the post of mine that you read.

      Would love to hear your thoughts on this.

      Thanks for reading my blog and responding. It helps me think through the ideas as well.

      Bob Ryshke



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