Practice and the Development of Expertise (Part 3)

practice

Image courtesy HRVoice

This is a variation of an article I prepared for CSTD and HRVoice, summarizing research on practice and expertise.  Part 1 introduced the signature skills demonstrated by experts that separate them from novices. Part 2 presented the type of practice that develops experts.  This post gets to the implications I see for Learning and Development and makes the connection to existing approaches that embody the principles of deliberate practice.

It would be easy to position deliberate practice in the formal learning camp. Indeed for some physical and routine skills  elements of deliberate practice can be build into formal training programs until a learner reaches mastery.  However, in the modern workplace jobs are more complex and demand greater cognitive (versus physical) skill.  The research findings challenges us to consider how we can better support the full novice to expert journey, embed learning and practice in the job, design experience to include practice and reflection, build tacit knowledge, and design rich feedback. In a past post I listed some general principles for using deliberate practice in learning

Fortunately we have a number of approaches available to us that align well to the conditions of deliberate practice. Most of these approaches are not training in the traditional sense. They do however have a structure to them and require significant support. Consider them more non-formal learning than pure informal learning.  Here are some well defined but under-used learning methods  that match well to deliberate practice.

  • Action Learning. Small teams create a plan of action to solve a real business problem. Impacts of these actions are observed, analyzed, lessons extracted and new actions prepared. This cycle of plan, act, observe, reflect embodies the key elements for deliberate practice. The approach has a significant and growing following. Used frequently for management development, it would be great to see it expanded to other types of professional work. See this  earlier post on action learning. 
  • Cognitive Apprenticeship. The standard apprenticeship model updated for modern knowledge work. Instead of demonstrating a manual skill, experts model and describe their thinking to “apprentices” who then work on the same problem while they articulate and verbalize their own reasoning. The expert provides coaching and feedback to encourage reflection. Support is “scaffolded”–gradually released as skills build and confidence is gained.
  • Communities of Practice. Groups with common professional or project goals work together sharing and discussing best practices. In doing so they develop rich tacit knowledge and the hidden “how to’s” that are often missed in formal learning programs. New knowledge is created in the process of collaborating with others. Social media environments can provide a home for the conversations and knowledge that is created.
  • Simulation and Games. Great simulations are a surrogate for real experience and incorporate authentic  work tasks. This allows the learner to attempt challenging tasks, experience failure and learn from errors–all critical elements of deliberate practice.  I like games that model real work and allow for fun, repeatable practice, but worry about “gamification” that uses game mechanics to motivate employees to use the same old ineffective training.
  • Feedback in the Workflow. Wonderful natural feedback exists in the form of business results and performance data. We don’t tend to think of it as a learning tool, but in the context of deliberate practice, it is one of the most powerful. It requires connecting the data to individual or team behavior. It is the cornerstone of approaches to team learning found in improvement methods like Lean, Six Sigma and performance technology. Here’s a post with some ideas on implementing a learning feedback system
  • Stretch Assignments with Coaching. One of the most powerful approaches to “practice” is challenging work assignments that push current capabilities. Already a staple of executive development, we need to see much more of it for other types of professional development.
  • Open Practice Centers. Instead of tired corporate universities and course catalogs populated with learning programs, Practice Centres could provide progressively challenging practice, simulations and work assignments matched to key job roles. Individualized practice is designed to support the full novice to expert journey using the principles of deliberate practice. Learning “content” is considered only in a support role to accomplish practice goals. Heres an idea for organizing the learning function around practice instead of content and courses. And the core idea applied to Management Development

These approaches and others like them occupy that fuzzy middle ground between informal and formal learning. Each can be aided significantly by social media/social learning and learning technologies. Most importantly however they are approaches that allow us to apply the research on “deliberate practice” to help improve our organizations and in doing so improve our own professional performance.

Practice and the Development of Expertise (Part 2)

Deliberate PracticeThis is a variation of an article I prepared for CSTD and HRVoice, summarizing important research on how practice develops expertise and implications for the learning function.  Part 1 introduced the signature skills demonstrated by experts that separate them from novices.

It seems these signatures of expertise are the result of years of effortful, progressive practice on authentic tasks accompanied by relevant feedback and support, with self-reflection and correction. The research team have labeled this activity “Deliberate Practice”. Others have called it deep practice and intentional practice. It entails considerable, specific, and sustained efforts to do something you can’t do well—or at all. Six elements for are necessary for practice (or on the job experience) to be “deliberate” practice:

  • It must be designed to improve performance. Opportunities for practice must have a goal and evaluation criteria. The goals must be job/role based and authentic. General experience is not sufficient, which is where deliberate practice varies from more laissez-faire approaches to informal learning. Years of everyday experience does not necessarily create an expert. Years of deliberate practice does.  See my post Everyday Experience is not Enough for a deeper discussion on this.
  • It must be based on authentic tasks. The practice must use real work and be performed in context-on the job. The goal is to compile an experience bank, not a vast list of completed formal training programs.
  •  The practice must be challenging. The tasks selected for practice must be slightly outside of the learners comfort zone, but not so far out as produce anxiety or panic. Deliberate practice is hard work and stretches  a person beyond their current abilities. The experience must involve targeted effort, focus and concentration
  • Immediate feedback on results. Accurate and diagnostic feedback must be continuously available both from people (coaches) and the business results produced by the activity. Delayed feedback is also important for actions and decisions with longer term impact as is often the case in knowledge based work.
  • Reflection and adjustment. Self-regulatory and metacognitive skills are essential. This includes self-observation, monitoring, and awareness of knowledge and skill gaps. Feedback requires reflection and analysis to inform behaviour change. Experts make mindful choices of their practice activities.
  •  10,000 hours. For complex work, ten years seems to be the necessary investment of in deliberate practice to achieve expertise. Malcolm Gladwell drew attention to the 10,000 hour rule in his book Outliers and it is one of the most robust findings in this research.  It poses a real challenge for our event based training culture. Of course the less complex the work, the less time required to develop expertise.

If we aspire to evidence-based approaches to learning it’s hard to ignore this body of research. Among other things, it challenges us to consider how we can better support the novice to expert journey, embed learning and practice in the job, design experience to include deliberate practice, build tacit knowledge, and build rich feedback into our organizations.

Fortunately we have a number of approaches available to us that align well to the conditions of deliberate practice. I’ll outline those approaches in Part 3.

Here is a nice illustration of the key process and concepts of deliberate practice courtesy of  Michael Sahota:

Deliberate-Practice-630x357

Practice and the Development of Expertise (Part 1)

I’ve been presenting recently on the research and application of Deliberate Practice for developing expertise in the workplace.  I’ll be doing so again at the upcoming British Columbia Human Resources Management Association (BCHRMA) conference on May 2.  A version of following article on the topic appeared in the CSTD Learning Journal.   A modified version will also appear in an upcoming issue of HR Voice.   It is posted here in three parts.

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expert We all know well-designed practice is a critical for effective training.  It’s what differentiates meaningful learning from passive information presentation.  But as work becomes more complex and knowledge-based, are the practice activities we design for our formal learning programs (both classroom and e-learning) enough to meet the need for expertise in the modern workplace? A comprehensive body of research on how professional expertise is developed suggests it may not be.

This research, led largely by Anders Ericsson at Florida State University and popularized in recent books such as Malcom Gladwell’s Outliers and Geoff Colvin’s Talent is Overrated, indicates that the type of practice needed to develop true expertise is more intensive and “deliberate” than we thought, and that it must be embedded in the context of real work.  Also, it must occur on a regular basis over much longer periods of time. The research has implications for us as learning and performance professionals.  It argues for a profound shift away from event based formal learning to approaches that could be categorized as informal learning or learning from experience.  However, it turns out not all experience is created equal when developing expertise, so simplistic notions of informal learning also won’t work.  So how should we rethink the design of practice if it is to truly develop the complex skills of the knowledge workplace?  To answer that question it helps to first understanding what expertise looks like.

Characteristics of expert performance

Ericsson’s research has found that top performing individuals at work, besides being very good at what they do, consistently demonstrate the following differences compared to novices and lower performing individuals

  • They perceive more.  Experts see patterns, make finer discriminations, interpret situations more quickly and as a result make faster, more accurate decisions.  Novices slowly review all information and don’t have the contextual experience to recognize patterns
  • They know more.  Not only do experts have more facts and details available to them, they have more tacit knowledge–that all-important unconscious “know how” that only comes with experience.  Novices rely on limited explicit knowledge
  • They have superior mental models.  Experience helps experts have rich internal representations of how things work and how knowledge is connected.  They use this to learn and understand situations more rapidly. Novices rely on simple, sometimes inaccurate, rules of thumb and loosely connected knowledge
  • They use personal networks more effectively.  Experts know who to go to for help and answers.   Novices are not able to identify access critical information and people as quickly
  • They have superior “meta-cognition”. Experts are better self-monitors than novices.  They set goals, self evaluate against a standard, and make corrections and adjustments more quickly from feedback

novice to expert

These are skills we want in all employees.  At times they seem like they come from an innate ability or deep “competency” unachievable by others.   However the research shows that while natural ability may play a small role, practice and experience are far more significant.  The nature of this experience is critical.  “Practice makes perfect” is only true for practice of a certain type which I describe in part 2.

Moving Practice to Centre Stage

As digital content becomes more prevalent (free and otherwise), there’s much talk about the new role of the learning professional as content curator or content strategy developer.

I agree this will be an important role, but worry it yet again puts the focus on structuring and controlling all that information (another round of knowledge management anyone?) while minimizing the critical role of practice and application of the “content”. We all know the importance of practice and feedback in the progression of knowledge to performance (we do all know that, don’t we?). If we truly believe it, then we need to put the design of practice and feedback at the centre of our work, and content (information) in a supporting role. This simple change in vantage point has the potential to radically change the way we approach learning and performance.

Organizing the learning function around practice (vs. courses and content)

What if the learning function was structured around the design and management of practice centres (virtual and physical), rather than the design and delivery of formal training events? It could once and for all move us away from formal event based learning to process oriented learning. The activities in each practice centre would vary by the type of skill being developed. Practice centres to support management and knowledge work for example (simulations, problem solving, cognitive apprenticeships) would look much different than that those supporting procedural and task oriented work (performance demonstrations, skill development). I explored this approach applied to management development in a previous post

What would be different?

Designing practice centres would require us to establish standards (ideally in collaboration with the people doing the work), derive authentic problems and tasks that help people achieve those standards, scaffold practice exercises in a progression towards expertise in the job/role and source and manage the “content” that will help employees make their way through the practice exercises. The framework puts practice in the centre and moves content to a supporting (but critical) role. You might think of the approach as Cathy Moore’s Action Mapping applied at the organizational level (rather than at the course level).

Separating content from practice

Traditional instructional design tightly connects information presentation (electronic or otherwise) with practice in structured learning events.  However, separating content from practice is positive and liberating (no matter what your ID traditionalists tell you) as long as practice does not get lost. Learning functions centred around the design of progressive practice would ensure that.

In the right context Web 2.0 and social learning can beautifully separate content and application.  Other times it can result more in  information dissemination.  Knowledge is an inert thing without application and consuming information is no substitute for true learning. Much of that awesome user generated content out there focuses on informing and much less on doing (thus the calls for content curation).  When social learning encourages sharing,  thinking, collaborating, and real world application as it does in an excellent community of practice, it fits well into the definition of practice I’m suggesting.

The role of Deliberate Practice in the development of expertise.

In preparation for an upcoming presentation on designing practice to improve performance, I’ve been reading much of the excellent source research on the role of deliberate practice in developing expert performance (popularized recently in well known business books). It’s sparked some ideas on how we might manage the shift I’m suggesting above.

If the research on deliberate practice has taught us anything it’s that developing expertise is a long term proposition (about 10,000 hours depending on who you believe).  One-off practice exercises built into formal training events only introduce employees to the “feel” of a skill and in no way produces the expertise needed in the modern workplace. If work performance is important and effective practice is a proven way of getting there, we should take it seriously enough to get it right.

I’ll explore the application of deliberate practice to various types of learning in my next few posts. In the meantime here are 10 ideas from a previous post that just scratch the surface on how Learning Professionals can use “deliberate practice” to improve workplace skill and performance.

  1. Move from “mastery learning” to designing practice with feedback over longer periods of time (from learning events to a learning process). Deliberate Practice differs from the concept of ‘Mastery Learning” at the heart of much instructional design. Mastery learning assumes a skill is perfected (or at least brought to a defined standard) in a fairly short period of time often within the scope of a single course. The complex professional skills of modern knowledge workers and managers demand a stronger focus on long term practice and feedback and building learning around long term objectives.
  2. Develop the person. Time, practice and individualized feedback imply a long term focus on individuals rather than on jobs or roles.
  3. Informal learning efforts like action learning, coaching and are cognitive apprenticeships are critical but they must be focused on practice and immediate feedback and extend over long periods of time.
  4. Relevant, frequent and varied practice must be the dominant and most important element in all formal training programs.
  5. Practice opportunities must extend far beyond initial training programs, to allow people to hone their skills through experimentation with immediate feedback.
  6. Create practice sandboxes and simulation centres for key organizational skills where people can practice their skills and experience immediate feedback in safe environment.
  7. Design visual feedback directly into jobs so professional can immediately see the results of their work. In this way working IS deliberate practice.
  8. Turn training events into the first step of a learning journey that will continue to provide opportunities to practice and refine skills throughout a career.
  9. Identify the interests and strengths of people nurture them through opportunities for deliberate practice. Provide resources and support that encourage early effort and achievement.
  10. Ensure social media environments provide opportunities for coaching and mindful reflection on performance.

Deliberate Practice, Learning and Expertise

I’m back from some vacation where I read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers on the beach at our cottage (along with some very funny David Sedaris).

Even if you haven’t read Outliers yet you probably know that it sets out to dispel myths that intelligence or innate ability are the primary predictors of success.  Instead,  Gladwell summarizes research and provides examples to show that it is hours and hours of practice (10,000 to be exact) and a “practical intelligence” (similar in concept to emotional intelligence) acquired through experience that are the real determinants of success.

Gladwell covers similar territory (and draws on the same research) as Geoff Colvin’s Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates world Class Performers from Everybody Else, another excellent book that elaborates on an article Colvin wrote for Fortune magazine a few years ago: “What it Takes To Be Great”.

Both books debunk the assumption that “gifted” skill and great performance comes from innate talent, personal traits or hard wired competencies and ability.  The research Galdwell and Colvin draw on is impressive.  Both point to the extensive work of K. Anders Ericsson at Florida State University.  Ericsson has conducted years of rock solid research on the role of “deliberate practice” in the acquisition of expert performance.  If you like to seek out source research as I do, then you’ll enjoy Ericsson’s (and others) impressive work that has been collected in the Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance. Here is an earlier (and less hefty) review on some of the same research: “Deliberate practice” in the acquisition of expert performance.

At the core of these works is the concept of “deliberate practice” over longs periods of time (up to ten years).  While impossible to boil down the theory into a few points, here it is…uh…boiled down into a few points.   Highly skilled performance in all aspects of life and work can be developed by the rough equivalent of 10,000  hours (10 years or so) of increasing specific, targeted and mindful practice in a domain of expertise. The practice must be:

  • Specific & technique-oriented
  • Self regulated
  • Involve high-repetition
  • Paired with immediate feedback on results
  • Isn’t necessarily “fun”, (in fact can be grueling hard work)

“Deliberate practice 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.
From: Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else .

Where Gladwell and Colvin focus on how an individual (you!) can use deliberate practice to improve and achieve the success you want,  Learning Professionals should be thinking about how to use the ideas to help others develop and grow the expertise needed by the organizations we support.  Ericsson has something to say here as well, having recently published a new book on how to design learning environments to develop and measure expertise– Development of Professional Expertise: Toward Measurement of Expert Performance and Design of Optimal Learning Environments.  In a time when learning/instructional design has become generalized and de-professionalized to the point of non-existence, it’s refreshing to see a serious treatment that moves the profession forward.

Using “Deliberate Practice” to Improve Workplace Performance

Here are 10 ideas that just scratch the surface on how Learning Professionals can use “deliberate practice” to improve workplace skill and performance.

  1. Move from “mastery learning” to designing practice with feedback over longer periods of time (from learning events to a learning process). Deliberate Practice differs from the concept of ‘Mastery Learning” at the heart of much instructional design.  Mastery learning assumes a skill is perfected (or at least brought to a defined standard) in a fairly short period of time often within the scope of a single course. The complex professional skills of modern knowledge workers and managers demand a stronger focus on long term practice and feedback and building learning around long term objectives.
  2. Develop the person. Time, practice and individualized feedback imply a long term focus on individuals rather than on jobs or roles.
  3. Informal learning efforts like action learning, coaching and are cognitive apprenticeships are critical but they must be focused on practice and immediate feedback and extend over long periods of time.
  4. Relevant, frequent and varied practice must be the dominant and most important element in all formal training programs.
  5. Practice opportunities must extend far beyond initial training programs, to allow people to hone their skills through experimentation with immediate feedback.
  6. Create practice sandboxes and simulation centres for key organizational skills where people can practice their skills and experience immediate feedback in safe environment.
  7. Design visual feedback directly into jobs so professional can immediately see the results of their work.  In this way working IS deliberate practice.
  8. Turn training events into the first step of a learning journey that will continue to provide opportunities to practice and refine skills throughout a career.
  9. Identify the interests and strengths of people nurture them through opportunities for deliberate practice. Provide resources and support that encourage early effort and achievement.
  10. Ensure social media environments provide opportunities for coaching and mindful reflection on performance.