This chapter moves our discussion of how to make children cleverer from theory into practice. In chapters 6 and 7 we talked about how knowledge can be embedded in long-term memory as ‘skill’ and here we move to a discussion of how best to make this happen. Practising the wrong things in the wrong ways makes us better at doing things badly; only by practising the right things in the right ways will we help children to overcome the limits of working memory and fluid intelligence.
I explain how purposeful practice – practice which takes you beyond your comfort zone with well-defined goals, sustained focus, accurate feedback – is the approach we should be trying to get children to engage in so that they become increasingly expert in the knowledge they are learning at school.
One of the difficulties we face is that progress is easy for beginners. In fact, it’s almost guaranteed as long as there is some motivation to improve. It helps if we get some feedback and have opportunities to go over procedures a few times, but beyond that, no problem. Children only continue to make progress continues if the conditions of practice are varied as they gain mastery, so that a degree of effortful thinking is still required.
We see expertise all around us. Children’s lives are frustratingly filled with experts; their parents can accomplish a narrow range of skills with accomplished ease; their teachers seem impossibly and effortlessly adroit in their subjects and that’s before you consider the athletes, musicians and others to whom they aspire. The gulf between being a novice and being an expert can appear impossibly wide, but in fact it’s filled with hard work and effort. But who wants to feel like progress is a slog?
The clash between motivation and mastery is a topic we return to in the final chapter. For now though, most of this chapter focuses on the different ways in which experts and novices think and learn. First, we must face up the bad news that in order to become an expert, we first have to be a novice. Sadly, montage scenes of Keanu Reeves having kung fu downloaded into his brain are a beguiling fiction. In the real world there is no short cut.
This gap between novices and experts is often just as invisible to teachers as it is to students. While novices don’t have the mental models required to understand how experts do what they do, experts suffer from the curse of knowledge. In a very literal sense experts have forgotten all they hard to learn in order to acquire their expertise and because of this they systematically overestimate how much novices learn and understand when given demonstrations and explanations.
The chapter finishes by providing an overview of cognitive load theory and how understanding it can make enormous differences to both teaching and learning.
Finally, here are three insights about the differences between novices and experts that could make a huge difference to teachers and students alike:
- What seems like an effective way for an expert to learn is rarely effective for a novice. Novices learn best with explicit instruction and clear guidance.
- You can’t teach skill, you can only teach knowledge. What seems like skill is actually the slow accumulation of thousands of items of knowledge that, when practised as procedures become invisible and automatic.
- Relevant knowledge stored in long-term memory makes everything easier. Crystallized intelligence trumps fluid intelligence. The more children know the more skilled they will become.