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Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Does Deliberative Practice Lead to Quick Proficiency?

In Social Media Conversations, I posted the story of how this post came about.  Briefly, I sent Ken Allan the following question:

Any thoughts on how deliberative practice relates to becoming something less than an expert. It seems like it should be applicable to all levels of achievement, but everything I'm reading is the study of becoming an expert. Is that just aspirational, or is deliberative practice also studied for quick attainment of proficiency?

And he responded with Proficiency and Deliberative Practice.

The best way for me to process something like his post, is for me to walk through it and take notes.  In this case, I'm going to create a post out of it.

Ken starts with some foundation around terms of 'expert' and 'proficient' and it is really a spectrum:

all according to where the benchmarks lie for ‘proficient’ and for ‘expert’.

Then he gets at the crux of where my question comes from … expert status is more difficult to achieve these days:

It is becoming increasingly more difficult for expertise to reach expert level. The matter of change, which can arrive every 6 months to a year, or even more frequently in technology, will limit the efficiency of any aspiring expert in reaching true expert level.

This is the reason that I wrote the question.  I think of myself as being proficient at learning new subjects quickly, maybe even getting to an expert level at aspects of that.  But I'm not an expert in any of these subjects.  Jack of all trades.  My core questions were:

In this time of rapid change, is expertise really the goal anymore?

Does Deliberative Practice Lead to Quick Proficiency?

Ken landed on the same alternative goal, "quick proficiency" …

Here were some of his strategies:

  • identify the required base-knowledge/skills, foster strategies for these to be recognized as key, and provide avenues for their appropriate acquisition and practice
  • cull redundant and/or recursive procedures or procedural loops in workplace routines
  • provide incentive for revisiting and refining/updating key knowledge/skills/procedures (used to be called ‘training’) to clarify current understanding
  • foster a culture where its acceptable to ask questions to do with key knowledge/skills/procedures - in other words, it's OK not to be an expert.

Good stuff.

It's interesting to see how these relate to and enhance the core elements of Deliberative Practice:

  • Deliberate practice identifies specific, defined elements of performance that need to be improved and works them intently independent of actual performance.
  • Goals are set around each element of performance.
  • Feedback and coaching is continuously available.
  • Deliberative practice is hard, not fun and separated from actual performance.

In reading studies on deliberative practice, it's pretty clear that there's a nice body of research showing that this works.  And the reality is that likely you've seen this with your kids – think improving soccer skills, study skills, etc.

However, do these same elements hold true when we are talking about a world where expertise is not the goal?  Where quick proficiency is the goal?  Where most people will be in a role for only a few years?  Where they need to get up to speed immediately?

I'm also trying to figure out how this relates to Work Literacy.  I believe that some of the methods described in the Tool Set series are actually part of a core set of work skills where concept workers should develop expert level.  However, even there, with the rapid change in these tools and methods, rapid proficiency might be a better goal.  And the use of these work skills are often about rapid proficiency or leveraging the expertise of others to act like an expert.

I don't expect that there's a simple answer to any of this and the great thing about social media conversations is that they can take their time.

I hope you will contribute your thoughts to this conversation.


test said...

Great questions Tony.

Keep up the great work. Many of us are listening to you.

I struggle with the same questions. Observing how my kids learn viola for over 15 years tells me that their are foundational skills required, a lot of practice is key. These foundations or the lack thereof influence the way we instantly become proficient at something.

Additionally, I think that the thinking process skills have more impact on the knowledge and mechanical skills (at least the foundation). If one knows how to think through the problem or knowledge, the person will likely learn and apply the skills. And wow, instant skill ( it seems). Not really.

This leads me to have questioned our emphasis on technical skill in Social Media and Web 2.0. Though they "facilitate" interactions and sharing, the "thinking process" in the shared material requires more study and attention (hence, the value of your Work Literacy project). Social media and Web 2.0 really mimic our collective thinking processes. So, billions of repetitive ideas shared and a few jewels of golden ides (at least from my point of view).

In my own small way, I have focused on how to help people to develop designs and systems to help them learn the "thinking through" and behavioral skills in developing following:

* Micro-Networks
* Micro-Relationships
* Micro-Sharing
* Micro-Coaching and Help
* Micro-Learning
* Micro-Interactions
* Micro-Feedback
* Micro-Content
* Micro-Exercises
* Micro-Writing
* Micro-Conversations
* Micro-Learning Systems and
* Micro-Tools


Brett said...


Many of the studies I've read on the subject look at the attainment of "expertise" (or mastery) in a particular subject or activity as a side-effect of the process, not a pre-planned goal or objective. For someone in sports or similar type of activity this makes sense, and - to me - is a desirable way to approach it.

On the question of achieving work literacy in specific activities, though, this isn't quite so desirable. The purpose of learning in most work situations is the achievement of the literacy/proficiency you need to carry out the job. While I may treat my job as a personal learning journey, the people I work for (employer, client, etc.) are much more interested in my ability to perform the task that they are paying me to do.

Back to your main question of how deliberate practice relates to becoming something less than an expert. I think that you could look at deliberate practice as kind of a sliding scale, with time as the basis. The more time you put into the practice, the closer to the expert side you get. Less time will improve your skills, but you won't become, or even get close to, being an expert.

The question then becomes, How much time is enough time to reach your desired level of literacy/proficiency? And how much time do you need to continue to invest to remain proficient?

Brett said...


Rereading this and thinking on it a bit more, I think maybe the real question is:

"Is the application of deliberate practice an effective or desired method for attaining quick proficiency?"

To that question, I think I would have to answer, "No, it's not."

But once the basic proficiency is achieved, I think deliberate practice would be a good way to build on that to achieve even greater proficiency.

Tony Karrer said...

Ray - thanks for the thoughts. Interesting to think about these micro-skills.

Brett - good restatement of the question: ""Is the application of deliberate practice an effective or desired method for attaining quick proficiency?"

Why do you say that it's not effective to basic proficiency? And then is more effective after?

Brett said...


Perhaps I should have said that the application of deliberate practice is not the most efficient way to achieve basic proficiency, even though it would be effective. As proficiency turns into literacy and then mastery, I think that deliberate practice becomes not just the most effective way but the most efficient as well.

I'm working on a blog post to explore these ideas in more detail, hopefully I'll have it up this evening.

Sue Waters said...

Flipping the conversation slightly from how "increasingly more difficult for expertise to reach expert level".

Social media has lead to the situation where individuals are often perceived to be experts or more skilled and/or knowledgeable but not because of their actual skills / knowledge. Solely based on their level of online presences.

Nowadays having an online presence is becoming increasingly more important to ensure others are aware of your abilities. In its absence people are more likely to assume other individuals, from similar fields, have a higher level of expertise if their online presence is stronger and "more Googleable."

V Yonkers said...

Actually, Tony, you are helping me write my dissertation as it seems that whenever I am thinking over a problem or reviewing the literature, you bring up one of the points I am struggling with.

In an article I was reading by William Clancy (Observation of Work Practices in Natural Setting, 2005), he brings up the difference between "practice" as in doing something over and over to achieve expertise and "practice" as in community of practice in which a person develops their tacit knowledge/expertise through negotiation of meaning within multiple contexts.

A worker can become proficient at doing a task, but to become an expert, be able to problem solve given any context or situation that comes up, requires "practice" or an understanding of the consequences of a choice and the social nuances needed to navigate through a certain situation.

Deliberative practice does not allow for the unpredictable factors that require problem solving and social negotiation skills needed to "punt". Clancy was talking about the difference between studying in a controlled lab as opposed to observing a phenomena in natural settings. There is a deeper understanding of the work practices in a natural setting looking at the contexts that form the work practices.

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Tenei to mihi ki a koutou!

Isn't it fascinating how differently we all think and respond when experiencing the same stimulus? What's fodder for one can be compost to another.

@Ray- sometimes I think learning is like constructing the prefabricated parts of a building.

There's a lot of effort, heaving, sawing and hammering to begin with.

But when the foundations are laid, walls trussed and roof braced, the whole building can come together in a day. Learning can come together that way too sometimes, and what a joy for the learner and tutor.

It's then you can assess the pedagogy and see if the roof fits right with the walls, and if the walls meet the foundation squarely. If they do, it's magic. If they don't, there's a bit of fitting to do.

Catchya later

Tony Karrer said...

@Sue - that's a fantastic point. There's a lot of literature on how people who have confidence often seem more expert than they actually are. Likely there's a similar effect via social media.

But it also makes me think that there's an really challenging question of:

If someone leverages social media effectively to find expert level answers to questions, how does that compare to being an expert?


Tony Karrer said...

@Virginia - love the double use of the term practice. I don't think you mean the second to be "community of practice" but rather more like "real world practice" ... I'll have to go back and look and see what the deliberative practice folks have to say about real world practice. There's definitely something else that people gain through real world experience.

@Ken - you've somewhat lost me on the foundation vs. practice topic?

Dave Ferguson said...

I've spent a lot of time plowing through Ten Steps to Complex Learning (there's an interminable series on my blog). A crucial point is that complex skills are...complex.

They have aspects that involve skills you apply the same way each time (procedural / declarative stuff). These, you can certainly automate through repeated, deliberate practice.

In fact, that elaboration gradually blinds the proficient practitioner to the details of such recurring skills. I type more slowly if I look at the keyboard, because I've been touch-typing since I was eleven. I don't think about which finger, or key layout, or the letters in words. When those are brought to my attention, I'm distracted, and my proficiency falls.

The non-recurrent skills, the ones you apply differently to different new problems, depend on cognitive strategies and mental maps that you build over time. That time element I think is necessary for you to become proficient--say, as a troubleshooter of network problems, as a medical specialist, as an attorney.

A less obvious element is that some of your skill may come from knowing where or how to search, rather than simple memorization--but you also need the mental framework that enables you to recognize helpful or potentially useful strategies.

All of this to say it's not an either-or but a both-and situation. It's "quick proficiency in what and for what?"

test said...

Sue, Tony,

Tony, great question.

Using information and knowledge found in social media does not always follow expertise; because knowledge without the prior foundational skills or thinking skills may not allow the person
to use the content as a value.
However, it is hard to make this judgment. Even if the person does not have the foundational skills, he/she can still use the knowledge and over a period of time after repeated applications (incremental versus immediate), may actually use the knowledge to meet his/her needs

I propose:

1. The person has foundational thinking skills and process skills on how to APPLY knowledge and ideas. (Hopefully we learn this through some earlier foundational training in schools, home, mentors, personal learning, work).

2. The person APPLIES and learn the best way to use the knowledge in his/her context/situation.

3. The person produces his/her desired results.

4. The person repeats the cycle until needed.

It is actually the type and depth of results the person values that dictate effectives or proficiency. It is near impossible to value proficiency for proficiency's sake; and which suspect, not what many wish to hear or admit.

So therefore, asking will practice lead to immediate proficiency? Yes, if the results are created. Now, this is such an unimaginative though since it diverts us from the core question of practice and proficiency.

From my observation, proficiency should not be the focus, it should be application; how we apply, how we interpret, how we cycle back, how we learn from it; the true learning (more on this in another topic).

Robert Kennedy III said...

So here's my question regarding this, Tony. I asked a recruiter this week at ASTD, does the term "proficiency", especially on a resume, indicate a real deep understanding of something or does it suggest a "just enough" understanding? I know in prior discussions regarding proficiency, I have come away with the feeling of proficiency meaning that you can do what it takes to be effective, you know the software enough to be useful and maybe even teach others. However, that does not make me an expert who knows all the tricks and ins and outs of the software. Especially in a world where things like software are constantly changing, being upgraded, etc, I don't see "quick proficiency" as a bad thing. But maybe some others do.

Sue Waters said...

"If someone leverages social media effectively to find expert level answers to questions, how does that compare to being an expert?"

Sorry it looks like it is going to be a long comment response back as I will need to give examples.

I call it being a connector which is the most important type of people you want in your network. For example, I'm a connector.

I don't need to know the answers because my personal learning network is so extensive, and extremely diverse, that I know who can help me with the answer. This also means I can normally get them answered before most people can. Which means people also turn to me because they know 1) I will help them find the answer 2) they know I will be able to find it quickly.

But to be like this strong, healthy relationships are required with expertise in using social networking.

In terms of diversity my network spans from fish farmers, educators, web programmers, web designers, bloggers, non profit, elearning people etc. As my online presence and what I'm involved with have grown than more people have wanted to connect. Since I freely help any one then people pay it back in kind.

Examples of how quickly. I had a young student who needed a person from Madagascar to comment on her blog (really long story). I sent out a tweet and in a very short time (probably 15 mins) one of the people in my twitter network who was based in Geneva but born in Madagascar was able to connect with people living in Madagascar, via twitter, who then were nice enough to comment on the student blog.

Another example, in January I was working on an elearning project on fish diseases. Had to be completed by end of January. Trouble was I urgently needed creative commons or copyright images of fish diseases that I was allowed to use.

January is our summer holidays. Was unable to get any assistance from any normal means regardless of how hard I tried. In frustration I tweeted out to my network. One of them found the images, with contact details of the person who took the images, within 24 hours I had experts in parasite fish diseases in USA providing me their images.

But going back to the expert. It is a huge danger that people are confusing online presence with being an expert.

The other danger is to take online information at face value without questioning if the information is true.

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora e Tony.

Sorry, I should have explained what was in my mind more clearly:

* Deliberative practice - constructing the prefabricated parts to a building.

* Proficiency - being able to put them all together efficiently so they fit.

It's not unlike Dave's description. I just used a metaphor.

Catchya later

rlubensky said...

Hi Tony,

I come to this conversation late, sorry.

I just want to clarify the terminology.

"Deliberate practice" makes sense in the context of expertise building where intentional learning takes place.

But "Deliberative practice" has special meaning for people like town planners, who invite stakeholders and the public to deliberate (the verb) around a table about a social planning issue.

"Deliberative" refers to facilitated problem-solving and collaboration.