Too often students in today’s schools are faced with two equally ineffective choices of how to think about their potential.
One is the so-called “fixed mindset”, which tells them that their potential talents and abilities were set at birth. This belief leads many students to decide that they are no good at maths or no good at art and to simply give up trying to improve in those areas.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is the “growth mindset”, which emphasises the possibility of developing one’s abilities.
But as Carol Dweck, the pioneering advocate for the growth mindset, pointed out in a recent essay for TES, teachers too often simplify this approach to little more than “you can do anything you set your mind to”. Giving students this sort of advice without providing them with sufficient guidance as to what it will take to accomplish their dreams leads to frustration and disillusionment.
Thus, Dweck concludes: “Our job as educators is to help our students understand where they are now, where they would have to get to, and what they will need in order to get there.”
Fortunately, there is already a well-studied mindset ─ distinct from both the fixed mindset and the growth mindset ─ that addresses the problem Dweck has identified and gives students their best chance of becoming highly skilled in whichever area they choose to pursue.
It is called the “deliberate practice mindset,” and it is something that one of us (Ericsson) has been studying for nearly four decades.
The third mindset
As described in our upconming book, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise (out in the US on 6 April and later in the month in the UK), deliberate practice is an approach to building skills that was developed in such highly competitive areas as classical music, ballet, gymnastics and chess ─ but that can be applied in any area.
We believe that cultivating this deliberate practice mindset is the best way to prepare students for a lifetime of effective learning.
Much of what we know about deliberate practice comes from detailed studies of how the best performers in music, ballet, chess and a few other areas developed their skills.
As Dweck noted, “the climb to great achievement is long and arduous, requiring lots of preparation, support and perseverance”.
The top performers in these various fields generally began training as young children. From early on, they worked with qualified teachers, developing correct fundamentals upon which everything else was built. Over time they developed highly detailed mental representations of the skills they were developing, and these representations allowed them to take increasing control of their own development.
There are some areas in which it is difficult, if not impossible, to become a world-class expert if you do not start very young. Ballet dancers, for example, cannot develop proper turnout unless they begin training before their joints settle.
But the general principles of deliberate practice can be applied in any area at any point in one’s life. These principles include maintaining an intense focus, staying on the edge of one’s comfort zone, getting immediate feedback, identifying weak points and developing practice techniques designed specifically to address those weaknesses.
Finally, because deliberate practice is hard work, those individuals who are successful over the long run have generally found ways to keep themselves motivated and have crafted supportive environments for themselves. Students in music academies, for instance, tend to socialise mainly with other music students, who understand their daily need to engage in practice at the expense of attending parties and other sorts of socialising.
Skill and mastery
People with a deliberate practice mindset have internalised these principles so that they know what is required to master a subject. They recognise that the path may be long and difficult, but they learn to take pleasure in the process and in their progress toward their goal.
In our book, we discuss how these insights about deliberate practice can be applied in the classroom.
It will require finding ways to individualise instruction and to provide students with personalised learning environments with immediate feedback. Students will need to find teachers who can assess their current performance objectively and generate a general plan for reaching their desired level of performance.
Both students and teachers will need to study how past students have attained the same increases to the same desired performance levels and use that knowledge to improve training techniques.
Finally, an educational system that wants to provide equal opportunity for all students will need also to address differences in student preparedness caused by such things as differences in the students’ home learning environments.
Because deliberate practice requires sustained purposeful effort ─ which is hard work for anyone, even experts ─ students must believe that if they put in that work, they really can improve and they must also see the relevance of that improvement to their ultimate goals. Thus a student who dreams about becoming a doctor, but who is struggling with maths, must be convinced of the importance of maths to a medical career ─ perhaps, for example, with videos describing the use of maths in administering the right amount of drugs to patients with different body weights ─ and must also develop a certain amount of faith that mastering maths will even be possible.
When the psychologist Benjamin Bloom and colleagues studied international performers in a wide variety of areas ─ concert pianists, Olympic swimmers, research mathematicians, and others ─they found that these performers had been brought up in families where at least one adult thought that they were special and different from other children. They “knew” without any objective evidence that their children had the capacity to become extraordinary, and the children learned to have faith in their own potential.
Most children are not so lucky, however, and this offers teachers an important role to play. Instead of simply telling students that they can accomplish anything they wish, teachers should demonstrate to students the value of deliberate practice directly.
What better way for students to develop faith in the power of deliberate practice, as well as an appreciation of the sort of hard work that is required to truly improve at anything, than to develop, through sustained training, the ability to do something that had previously seemed impossible?
K. Anders Ericsson is Conradi Eminent Scholar and professor of psychology at Florida State University. His groundbreaking work has been cited in bestsellers from Moonwalking with Einstein to Outliers.
Robert Pool is a science writer living and working in Tallahassee, Florida. He has worked at some of the world's most prestigious science publications, including Science and Nature.