Saturday, January 10, 2009

Practice in Learning in Practice

Over the past few months I've been working my way through Steven Pinker's "How the Mind Works". The title is renders the book's premise self-explanatory - Pinker's goal is to review and comment on the existing research that supports modeling the mind as a modular biological computer that exists in it's current state as a result of natural selection. Having finally finished it a bit more than a week ago, I've started Malcolm Gladwell's newest work, "Outliers". This book focuses on the environmental and chance factors that are necessary for far-above-average humans to develop their particular skills.

Pinker's text is the kind of "tour de force" most of us would expect of a Harvard & former MIT professor, the type of book that I find best to consume in small chunks of 5 - 10 pages before I need to set it down to digest the information, and then only pick it back up after no less than a few hours so that I've had time to process. Gladwell's journalism background, I think, lends to consuming his writing in larger chunks, but I still find myself putting the book down and taking a break in order to think. As you might expect, when I think about the implications of the claims made in books like these, I tend to think about educational systems.

I'll leave the more detailed book reviews to others, encouraging all to read these books. The detail that emerges as common to both which bears specific mention, though, is the critical role that practice plays in the development of long-term skill. Pinker describes the formation of complex concepts as depending critically upon being able to work rapidly with the simpler components of those concepts, a process that requires lots of repitition. Gladwell introduces a similar line of reasoning in his argument, citing research showing that highly skilled athletes, academics, musicians, and other "outliers" share in common not only inherent skill, but incredible opportunities for time to practice and repitition. The research Gladwell cites claims that 10,000 hours of practice on a particular skill set is the "magic number" for greatness.

Though, of course, neither Gladwell or Pinker claim that practice is the only variable, I think it's worthwhile to note that it's an incredibly important one. It's particularly important to think about the role of practice and repitition in skill development because many recent movments in curriculum reform have reduced the role of rote memorization in the classroom, pointing toward the persistent availability of a huge amount of factoids through Internet-based resrouces. While it's true that we now have an incredible resource at our very fingertips allowing us to nearly-instantaneously access a mind-boggling amount of information, I also think it's important to acknowledge a fundamental assertion of Pinker's work: the brain/mind is a product of natural selection, a process that works over very long periods of time, and so the brain/mind we have is the one that was selected as the most successful for our ancestors who lived long before the Internet. If we reduce rote memorization in entirety from our toolbox of methods to promote student learning, we'll only make it less likely that students will be working toward Gladwell's "magic number" of 10,000 hours. What, then, is best practice in education if the long-term learning of complex concepts depends critically upon time spent in practice?


  1. I don't know that I agree with your conclusion about memorization. I don't want my students to practice rote memorization, because then that gets them to be good at - memorizing! They definitely need to get to their 10,000 hours in reading, and that's what we're working on.

    We read, read, read, and then they write a wee bit about what they're reading so I know they're not faking, and then we talk about how we make sense of tough parts and how THE WAY we read matters and stuff like that. And then we read, read, read some more!

    Classic quote from Gary Paulsen: "Read like a wolf eats!"

  2. Thanks for the comment and extending the conversation. I'm not sure that I entirely agree that memorization only increases skills in memorizing (though it does, and its an important skill). I think that memorization can increase the speed at which students can access and work with information, which has an impact on how quickly they can learn new concepts that build upon previously-learned concepts. Perhaps my broader point is not that rote memorization is the only or perfect tool, but that it is important tool to spend time on (particularly for fundamental concepts). It's great to read that you have your students spend so much time engaged in developing their critical reading skills - that time spent in practice is so important, and I love the Paulsen quote!

  3. Thanks for submitting this post to our blog carnival. We just published the 43rd edition of Brain Blogging and your article was featured!

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