Debate Magazine

Deliberate Practice (from the Archives)

By Stevemiranda

I read a great piece today by Sanjoy Mahajan about a concept called “deliberate practice.” He writes,

“Deliberate practice requires careful reflection on what worked and what didn’t work. A budding concert pianist may practice a particularly troublesome passage listening for places where his fingers do not flow smoothly. A chess student may spend hours analyzing one move of a world-championship chess match trying to see what the grandmasters saw. This kind of practice demands time for reflection and intense concentration, so intense that it is difficult to sustain for longer than 3 hours per day.”

This is, I think, what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is referring to when he talks about “flow.” It’s that experience of immersing yourself so deeply in an activity that you lose track of time. Researchers have demonstrated repeatedly that people who are able to spend a significant amount of time in a flow state report very high level of life satisfaction.

And this is, I think, what Dr. Tae (the skateboarding physics professor) is referring to when he talks about how the learning process really happens: “Work your ass off until you figure it out.” (I’ve embedded at the bottom of this post a TEDx talk of him explaining this concept.)

And this is, I think, another example of why the dysfunction of our school systems have very little to do with the individuals involved, and are much more about how we set up the systems in the first place. Even the greatest classroom teachers will struggle to help their students reach a flow state because the class periods are too short, and the vast majority of students in a typical classroom are not there by choice. It’s hard to immerse yourself in an activity when you have to be coerced into doing it. These limitations are not trivial.

The teachers, principals, and counselors working in schools today did not create the industrial education model designed to mimic the factory assembly line. But every day, they deal with the consequences of that design.

“Is it any wonder,” Mahajan writes, “that, just as I can play chess but have little insight into how the game works, science and engineering students graduate able to ‘work hard’ but cannot solve problems expertly and creatively? What would an educational system look like that took seriously the principles of deliberate practice?”

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