Deliberate Practice & Leadership


Let me first propose the basic framework/mindset that in my opinion has to be followed for the “deliberate practice” approach to be successful…

It’s what I call the “Heat Engine” effect

While this is widely followed in business, I am reiterating it because I often see it being forgotten in education. And a lot of value is being lost in my opinion because of that.

When Heat Engines were first developed, they were 1-3 % efficient. James Watt in 18th century took them to 5-7 %, Andre Chapelon in mid 20th century to 13 %. Today there are engines that are almost 40% efficient!

The value that has been unlocked by this improvement over almost 3 centuries has been enormous. However, to do this requires again the mindset of “deliberate practice”, that is we should be looking at continuous improvement and NOT perfection. If the early engineers let themselves be disheartened/diverted by the minimal improvement they were making, the world wouldn’t be where it is today.

Essentially this means shifting our eye from ourselves (teachers/process owners) on to the recipients (students and the society). That is shifting our primary focus from the process we are employing to the value that is being unlocked. Very importantly, this has implications for

  1. The level of proficiency we desire for each student
  2. Scalability (this will require finding “good enough” teachers/masters, but then the number will depend on the level we define “good” as)
  3. Stakeholder buy-in
  4. Focus on the creation of job channels between the skill holder and the market

Now on to the questions that Atul you have posed… I will answer the questions in sequential mails so the volume of information is manageable…

Q1 In context of “Deliberate Practice”, and 10, 000 hours rule for mastery of a skill, how does the above model play out? In particular, how long does the apprenticeship cycle for the mastery to be transferred?

Ans: First, summarizing what I have discussed below…

The number of hours will depend upon…

  1. The proficiency level we decide in accordance with the market needs (we should remember the 10, 000 hour guideline is for an ultimate master and we should need much less than that from a practical viewpoint)
  2. Our ability to match the skill area with the natural strength of the student
  3. Our ability to transform the learning environment by inspiring trainers to be leaders (crucial)
  4. Our ability to motivate the students by establishing job channels and not to forget, making those channels visible to them

We can try to triangulate around the problem of the number of required hours. However even for that we will need more data, especially regarding what proficiency level matches the market needs…

Now, let me talk in more detail. First listing down the factors I think that impinge on this problem.

  1. Learning environment
  2. Natural strength
  3. Market demands

Discussing the factors one by one…

  1. Learning environment

The paradigm shift in the “deliberate practice” model according to me is that the teacher’s primary role is not to disseminate the knowledge/skill anymore – that activity  is secondary – but to lead/motivate the students to continuously improve themselves in an intelligent manner towards the learning goal (by both self and teacher critiquing)… This is a lot of hard work and so it requires constant motivation… I am saying paradigm shift because then teaching becomes as much, or even more, about “how” than “what”. And I specifically mention the words lead/motivate, as teacher/trainer in this model is a leader more than anything else. The Greek root of the word “pedagogy” itself means to lead the child.

The other things like curriculum, assessment are secondary to this. It’s like viewing the class as a mini organization where everything else fails to make the desired impact if there is no strong leader to take the organization towards its goals (in this case the learning goal).

The other specific thing to realize here is that teaching as a skill then becomes different from the specific skill the trainer has. In addition to the specific skill the trainers have, they have to also be able to create and sustain the effective learning environment by acting as leaders/motivators.

As to what we need to do to transform teachers into leaders and create the best learning environment, that will be a huge discussion by itself and we will have to come to that later.


2. Natural Strengths

To explain this, I will borrow from one of the very famous articles published in HBR by Peter Drucker called “Managing Oneself”. It talks about something called “Feedback Analysis”: to discover your strengths (as they are unique to you) and then working on to continuously improve them. Which is again nothing but another way of talking about “Deliberate Practice”.

However, one crucial difference Peter Drucker makes is that we should focus on “improving our strengths” (he emphasizes that we do have unique strengths!) than work deliberately on “areas of low competence”. As he says “it takes far more energy to improve from incompetence to mediocrity than it takes from first-rate performance to excellence”.

This goes against the pure concept of “Deliberate Practice” which says there are no unique strengths.

I am more inclined to take a middle path (from observation) where there are indeed strengths, but one has to still work a lot on them in a deliberate fashion to achieve maximum competence. From what I remember from my own experience in engineering workshops, I was naturally very good at “Welding” and good at “Lathe” (perhaps because I have a very steady hand), and not so good at “Carpentry” and pretty bad at “Wiring”.

This also gels in with the observation in the article you sent me “A Star Is Born” which said that we should choose to work in the areas we love as only then we will be able to put that much of hard work. I think we naturally like the area we are strong in, and then it is a feedback loop: we get better and better at it by working, and buoyed by our success, we love it more and more.

So I think we should not assume there are no strengths. It’s important for both student and teacher to discover the areas the students are naturally strong at and hence are likely to love.

3) Market demands

Market should impact what we do in two ways

  1. Choosing pertinent skill areas, establishing channels to market, and making those channels visible to students:

While ideally the market would demand from us exactly what we are good at/love, often that may not happen. However, the motivation for the students to pick up a skill will depend as much on their confidence towards getting a job once they are done with their training as much on their natural proficiency in it. Those two are inextricably linked.

So it is important to choose the right skill areas and simultaneously establish channels to the market while the training is going on, and equally importantly make those channels visible to the students. The presence/absence of this can greatly impact their desire to do deliberate practice and can even act as make or break

Proficiency level: We also must keep the market in mind while deciding on the proficiency level (thus the number of hours) and neither under nor overtrain

These are my first-cut ideas. From here, we have to establish a lot of specifics (strategies and processes).to achieve these things on ground.