Nearly all of us have heard (or used) this maxim: practice makes perfect.

Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, inadvertently popularized a (false) corollary to the maxim, the idea that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to gain world-class expertise or skill level.

Often called “the 10,000-hour rule,” this idea implies that putting in the time is all it takes to gain expertise. But that’s misleading. Not all practice makes perfect; simply practicing the same thing over and over again is insufficient to improve skill. The way a learner practices matters. A lot. And that’s where learning leadership comes in.

Building opportunities for focused, deliberate practice into training resources is a proven and necessary way to improve performance and raise skill levels.

Not all practice is valuable

You read that right. Simply doing the same thing over and over again won’t help you get better at it. The magic in practice is not the number of hours or the repetition. It’s the way you practice.

In his book Peak, Anders Ericsson, an expert on expertise, thoroughly examines and dismantles the myth of “the 10,000-hour rule”, as well as the assumption that world-class performers—whether at golf, chess, or violin—are born with “natural talent” that gets them to their stratospheric level of skill.

The quick summary is that the idea that simply spending enough time practicing, about 10,000 hours, is a magic formula for successful performance is a vast oversimplification of how experts hone their skills.

In fact, Ericsson’s research found that “the maximal level of performance for individuals in a given domain is not attained automatically as function of extended experience, but the level of performance can be increased even by highly experienced individuals as a result of deliberate efforts to improve.”

Principles of deliberate practice

Practice is essential, but that practice must be deliberate practice, which focuses on three principles:

  • Breaking down learning into a series of clearly defined specific skills
  • Designing exercises to teach each of those skills, in order
  • Using feedback to monitor progress and identify and eliminate weaknesses

Build deliberate practice into your training strategy

Designing a learning strategy that recognizes the need for deliberate practice can help learning leaders and their design and development teams create more effective training and reinforcement materials. Some best practices are detailed in the following sections.

Focus on specific skills

A basic tenet of instructional design is to start by creating performance-based learning objectives. These provide a strong foundation for deliberate practice by focusing not on vague ideas of what learners should “know” or “understand,” but rather using specific descriptions of what learners should be able to do on completing their training.

Emphasizing skills does not discount the importance of facts and concepts. Ericsson says that learners will learn and remember information throughout their deliberate practice, as they practice and master needed skills.

According to Peak, working toward a performance-based goal enables learners to create a mental model of the desired skill, then to gather and shape the knowledge and related skills that are essential components of their larger goal.

Use instructional scaffolding to present skills and steps in the correct order

Breaking performance objectives into specific skills and using instructional scaffolding to introduce foundational steps, concepts, or ideas before presenting learners with more complex ones creates effective frameworks for deliberate practice.

Ericsson notes that “the design of the task should take into account the preexisting knowledge of the learners so that the task can be correctly understood after a brief period of instruction.”

Recognizing and building on preexisting knowledge keeps learners motivated and engaged. It also facilitates the design of learning content as manageable chunks that learners can consume in an order that makes sense both for the task and for their individual needs.

Drive improvement with immediate, informative feedback

Including formative feedback at every step an essential element of deliberate practice. Feedback provides learners with “knowledge of results of their performance” and the information they need to identify weaknesses and improve.

The lack of feedback is a key reason that simply practicing is ineffective at boosting performance: “In the absence of adequate feedback, efficient learning is impossible and improvement only minimal even for highly motivated subjects,” according to Ericsson, Krampe, and Tesch-Römer.

Angela Duckworth et al. agree: “During deliberate practice, individuals receive immediate informative feedback on their performance and can then repeat the same or similar tasks with full attention toward changing inferior or incorrect responses, thus improving the identified area of weakness.”

Time to add deliberate practice to your training strategy?

Adding deliberate practice to your training strategy is a great way to improve knowledge transfer and performance, but it's not as simple as blocking out time for learners to review training materials or repetitively practice skills. Deliberate practice requires a focus that goes beyond viewing a single course or resource as the way to “solve” a performance problem; it therefore demands a paradigm shift. Introducing a strategy based on deliberate practice could require changing your organization’s learning and working culture.

In the business world, workers are “often given some period of apprenticeship or supervised activity during which they are supposed to acquire an acceptable level of reliable performance. Thereafter individuals are expected to give their best performance in work activities …” according to Ericsson, Krampe, and Tesch-Römer.

After initial training, the researchers argue, workers are less likely to explore new approaches or seek improved processes, as spending time on trial and error could reduce their performance in the short term, with potential negative consequences, such as missed deadlines or targets.

This approach reflects a typical attitude toward training as a cost—rather than as an ongoing process that is beneficial to the organization.

Lead the way to a continuous learning mindset

A training strategy that builds in deliberate practice, in contrast, is one that looks at learning potential beyond onboarding new hires and imparting basic skills, instead focusing on continuous learning and performance improvement. Over the long term, this approach benefits both the workers and the organization, as the workforce becomes highly skilled and workers are more engaged with their jobs—and less likely to leave.

Adding deliberate practice and moving to a continuous learning paradigm entails:

  • Creating learning and review materials that enable repeated practice of specific skills, using exercises designed to improve performance and reduce errors
  • Providing immediate formative feedback throughout training and practice
  • Scheduling deliberate practice so as to avoid burnout
  • Ensuring that workers / learners have the time, resources, and managerial support to engage in continuous learning

Explore leadership issues with your peers

Shifting learning culture or adopting new training strategies can be an uphill climb; learning leaders do not need to undertake this challenge alone. Share what works and explore the strategies and skills required to navigate the needs of today’s ever-changing workplace with your learning leadership peers.

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