John Jensen: Clarifying the Myth of ‘Practice Makes Perfect’

by John Jensen

“The Myth of ‘Practice Makes Perfect’” is a misleading title of a Time/Opinion article by Annie Murphy Paul published earlier this year.

I bring it up even several months later because the issue it addresses is important. Practice is the only means of developing skill in either physical actions or knowledge, so discarding it is not a good idea. The title implies that the very notion of “practice makes perfect” is a myth, is false, though the article does not imply this nor refer to any “myth.” We might guess that a copy editor in the bowels of Time Magazine chose it to broaden the article’s appeal beyond psychologists. Practice not only “makes perfect,” but also “permanent,” “perseverant,” “persistent,” and  “productive” (as several comments on the article noted).  Aspects of practice provide a context.

John Jensen, Ph.D.

1.  Practice is the means to skill development.  Skill—facility with a physical action or knowledge—depends on a field of perception, knowledge, and response one can call up at will and apply with increasingly varied and effective behavior.  Practice is defined as “repeating a skill in order to develop it.”  Three notes are present: repetition, skill, and development.

When development is absent, we don’t refer to the activity as practice. People often engage in patterned behavior with no expectation of improvement.  They prefer not to work harder at their sport or other skill to get better at it. They are pleased just to engage in it even though repeating errors without correction makes them permanent.

In contrast, Paul explains how deliberateness advances skill.  The 1993 research of Anders Ericcson and of others found a difference in this between top performers and also-rans. Top performers identified errors and corrected them more thoughtfully, quickly, and accurately than did the latter, a difference that distinguished between levels of accomplishment.  We might credit top performers with practice “on steroids.”  They were better at spotting the nuances that gained them  a step of improvement.

On the other hand, we should not assume that deliberate insight replaces repetition.  Just noticing mistakes and correcting them doesn’t bring desired results because of the next idea.

2.  Skill depends on practicing a field.  Paul neglected to add a further finding by Ericcson.  Although their intelligence  only matched that of the average college student, top performers spent thousands of hours more practice than average performers in their field.  This comprises a valuable message to pass on to students: “What matters is not being extra bright but rather your effort. You improve as long as you keep practicing and try not to repeat your mistakes.”

Skill development implies correcting details within a context, a field of understanding—the rules of a sport or skill, a rough mental model of the activity, the stage of skill one has reached that the corrections advance, and a beginning capacity to perform essential actions.  Parts make sense due to the whole. The thoughtful practice of a part presumes a field giving it meaning. The musician constantly rehearses and maintains the parts he already knows perfectly in order even to make his way to those he needs to correct.

In education, this implies that students master the overview, the field of knowledge holding the details together. Unfortunately, mainstream instruction does not consistently develop a meaning-field in students.  The very idea of it is strange to most teachers. Instruction instead constantly changes the randomized, sectioned, piecemeal bits of knowledge it drives past their minds–to be quickly forgotten. Students rarely (and typically only under a teacher who really gets this point) experience the pleasure of creating a body of knowledge they know so well that it satisfies them.  Their curriculum bids them “cover this and move on.”  They seldom practice the field (like the “whole piece of music”) and they practice inadequately the sections that comprise it.

3.  We first get a chunk of learning at least correct and then master it in that form. At the start, skill is absent: no knowledge of it, zero familiarity, no deliberateness, no insight. Finding competent skill much later, what happened in between?  What did the black box contain?

Skill doesn’t pop into existence ex nihilo. Children instead observe and imitate an elementary model of an activity–input then output. An idea is grasped, a behavior attempted, another idea roughed in, another new behavior tried. Input comes first as the mind apprehends words and images enabling it to assemble the basics of the skill. The mind then repeats what is pictured in that form in order to improve at it.

Consider third graders responding to their teacher’s request, “Please explain the five steps of solving a problem you have with someone else.” Someone already figured out a sequence that worked for third graders so they don’t need insight just yet. First, they get it “right.”  They master the five steps with practice–input and output–until all five are maintained in their right order. From then on, development occurs through repeating the mental model outwardly in words and deeds. New input expands understanding and new output saves and organizes it in the context of the whole.

4. Initial practice occurs with minimal insight. An entire natural and civilized world is already described accurately and extensively. An ocean of knowledge makes it work. We reasonably expect schools to convey an objective model of the world as it is now.

Granted that all children would like to be the first to discover the world afresh.  We want their personal encounter with the world to feel that way, but we also acknowledge that we know how a wheel, a wedge, and a lever work. They do not need re-invention—a principle applying throughout civilization.  “Known” knowledge lies all about us. We practice and learn it in every subject just to catch up with what’s happened already. For scientific and mathematical knowledge, the social sciences, history, etc., we look to K-12 education to fill out in students’ minds an accurate model of reality as currently apprehended even while expanding the scope of what is to be newly experienced, discovered, created, and invented.

5.  With the major pieces correct, we can improve qualities. The school paradigm works everywhere. We practice useful knowledge that possesses a previously-defined boundary. When something is known objectively but I don’t know it personally, I get the basic steps in the right place, have a correct answer, and practice it so it is embedded permanently in my understanding.  Given time, I may improve on my current grasp of it, but first I must possess it. We advance most rapidly beyond the giants by standing on their shoulders.  Third graders learning steps of problem-solving gain confidence in handling life situations by using their five-step skill. Later on, deliberation and insight contribute more as a senior high psychology class explores nuances of the five steps. Skill might take form later as an international conflict resolution expert with a doctorate in social psychology.

6. People select different aspects of a skill to practice. A tool helpful for understanding how people focus their effort is called the ability periphery.  Imagine standing with your toes on the edge of a field of tasks of varying difficulty. The easy ones are right in front of you. Farther out are those you achieve sometimes, and with tasks on the opposite edge of the field, you fail every time.

Any task you undertake is somewhere in this field depending on its degree of difficulty—some always easy, some challenging, and some impossible . With the first kind you multitask around them–driving, chewing gum, and holding a conversation—but interest in them is often low. The tasks on the far side of the field don’t interest you either because you fail every time, but those in the middle hold you. With these you identify quickly what makes a difference, how your effort matters. You focus slightly one way, notice your skill advance, and choose to use that manner from then on. The price of doing this is expending effort in a zone where mistakes often occur, inviting your courage as well as self-mobilization.

A  third grader learning basketball shoots the ball easiest from right under the basket but would get bored with that.  From center court, he would never make a basket, so he doesn’t do that either.  He prefers to try from a midpoint of part success and part failure where his effort makes a difference;  how he pays attention to and thinks about his action, and the feedback it gives: “I did this” (i.e. it didn’t happen by accident but was due to my intention), and “the way I focused myself may succeed better.”

An ability periphery expands steadily with skill development.  Easy for one is impossible for another. Top performers’ mastery of the basic and intermediate stages enable them to practice at the highest levels of ability. Others lacking their context, their prior field of mastery, do not even have available to them where the top performer works constantly.  Once I asked an accomplished pianist how she went about practicing.  She commented, “Well, once you get the notes down, all the rest is just solving problems.”  For her, problems began after the notes were learned and fine points could be addressed.

7.  The main practice of academic knowledge is explaining it.  Paul’s article focused on skills expressed in outer action—music and sports. Most of what passes through classrooms, however, relies more heavily on the knowledge component. Teachers may not immediately view the practice of knowledge the way practice occurs in the gymnasium, but still may say “Practice answering these questions for the test,” or “Practice giving your report,” or “Practice solving these problems.”  With knowledge, the model of the knowledge itself  is expressed rather than a behavior following from it.  The practice design is the same, however; expressing outwardly what was understood, explaining the knowledge with understanding. The main driving force behind acquiring a body of knowledge is just practice expressing it.

8.  Practice to deepen knowledge differs from making it correct.  Mainstream U.S. instruction generally ignores the difference between these two qualities.

“Correct” means getting all the pieces in the right place.  “Deep” means knowing the whole thing in six months without thinking about it in between. With instruction designed only for correct knowledge, students constantly forget what they labor to learn, and remain measurably ignorant even of what they once knew.  For permanent learning, students need deepening practice.  Re-expressing the learning at expanding intervals is the easily-arranged, direct route to stable, confident, permanent knowledge.

9. Hearing another person practice does not substitute for one’s own practice. Teachers too often assume that explaining a point and having a couple bright students answer questions about it assures that everyone gets it.

For developing knowledge correct, deep, and extensive there appears to be no shortcut.  Each student must do his/her own expressing.  Teachers one at a time “learn a subject by teaching it.” Their colleague doing so in the next room does not replace their own effort.  Each student has the same need: Explain it yourself.  Explain the whole thing.  Explain it repeatedly as you expand and develop it.  Instructional method must arrange for every student to carry out sufficient practice to make learning both correct and deep; and later on, more insightful.  Students need to receive and express ideas over and over; explain in pieces small and large, explain in reference to alternate associations and implications, explain whole subjects from beginning to end, and explain (and demonstrate) the practical with the theoretical. Corrections keep skill development on track.

10.  Top performers claim and commit to their own expertise.  Top ability—even just competence—is not produced by others’ pressure on us.  The expectations of good teachers take us just so far. The key is what happens when their influence is removed.  Then, one’s own will to master a subject just because we choose to do so is the turning point. Advancing a skill that is significant to us personally, we constantly consult ourselves at a deep, inward level, calling up our personal resources of perception and response. To do this well, we first claim it: “I am doing this.”  Top performers characterize themselves around their skill: “I am a person who does this kind of thing and I expect to enjoy doing it forever.”

Here we find perhaps the greatest disparity between the example of focused effort by top performers and what school design offers to students.  Under “cover-this-and-go-on” instruction, students fail to discover the pleasure of mastering anything.  The checkpoints they pass through certify that they are malleable to adult guidance, but not much more. The model of instruction should enable them to master knowledge about the world, and claim it as their permanent possession.

John Jensen is a licensed clinical psychologist and author of the Practice Makes Permanent series (Rowman and Littlefield). Contact him at jjensen@gci.net with questions about the approach or the training and certification program.

John Jensen, Ph.D.
John Jensen is a licensed clinical psychologist and education consultant. His three volume Practice Makes Perfect Series is in publication with Rowman and Littlefield, education publishers. The first of the series due in January is Teaching So Students Work Harder and Enjoy It: Practice Makes Perfect. He welcomes comments sent to him directly at jjensen@gci.net.