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Of Deliberate Practice, Memory, and Expertise

By Rick Hess — October 25, 2016 3 min read
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Of late, I’ve been thinking a lot about the nature of expertise. It’s partly because the topic is highly relevant to my forthcoming Letters to a Young Education Reformer, partly because of the well-deserved attention to Don Hirsch’s new book Why Knowledge Matters, partly because expert predictions about everything from the consequences of Brexit to our current election have been so off, and partly because deference to (a vaguely conceived) “expertise” offers a fault line to so many of our current debates.

Anyway, I’m inclined to revisit some thoughts on the nature of expertise that the brilliant Bror Saxberg (and the infinitely less brilliant Rick Hess) offered a couple years ago in Breakthrough Leadership in the Digital Age. As we noted, cognitive science has long suggested that expert performance tends to be the product of an extraordinary amount of deliberate practice. So, what exactly does that mean?

“Deliberate practice” is, well, deliberate; it’s not just running through something you already know how to do. It means looking closely at your own performance, comparing it to an ideal performance, looking for the missteps, then training to address them. Think of football players reviewing game tapes, thinking constantly about how to play their position better. If this sounds like real work, why, yes, it is—but it is doable work.

Consider people you know who are truly adept at what they do. A truly expert car mechanic often knows what’s wrong with your car just by seeing and hearing it be driven. Even as he addresses the ball, the expert golfer has already factored in weather, wind, and distance in order to judge how and how hard to hit the ball. An expert on data can use many techniques to make sense of complex information—and can demonstrate the best technique for addressing the most important questions you have.

We noted four things common to experts:


  • When it comes to many decisions and procedures in their domains, they work quickly.
  • When making routine decisions in their domain, they rarely make mistakes—even when the decisions are quite complex.
  • Their conversations about why they did what they did and how they can improve are at a completely different level of precision than are those of non-experts.
  • They have ways to order their thinking that enable them to rapidly generate promising solutions to new challenges in their area of expertise.

To make sense of what’s going on in the expert’s mind, we flagged a useful, but incredibly easy-to-overlook, illustration of how expertise works:

You are a good driver, been driving for years. You set out driving to place A, and then begin thinking about life, work, family—all the hard problems of your week and day. After a while, you look around, and you realize, "Darn it, I'm going to place B, and I'm almost there!" You laugh at yourself, change direction, and without further thought about it, set off to place A again.

Who drove you to place B? You were busy thinking about work, life, family—so who was in charge of two tons of metal, moving at 40, 50, 60 mph? Driving is a complex decision-making process, with lots of rules and interpretations of other people’s behaviors that you had to learn. Yet your mind can execute all of this without involving the conscious you.

When you were learning to drive, it was very different. As you tried to remember which was the brake and which the accelerator, your conscious mind was intently focused on driving—and (hopefully) not much else. Yet with a lot of practice, it becomes automatic.

This is not just true of “mechanical” tasks like driving. Consider the following example, sketched in Bror’s ineffable prose:

A medical student calls in an infectious disease expert to help diagnose a challenging patient. The expert arrives, flipping quickly through the chart and waving the student off, then opens the door to the patient's room. He exchanges pleasantries with the patient, walks around the bed to shake hands with the patient, turns around, makes the diagnosis, looks at his watch and says, "Yes!" (it is lunchtime after all), and heads to the door. The medical student stops the expert and asks, "How did you make the diagnosis?" The expert hesitates, looks at the ceiling, crosses his arms, looks at his shoes—he appears to have no clue how he made his diagnosis, much to the consternation of the student. And then the expert tries to relate what he did: a quick scan of the chart had given him a sense of the possible ailments. When he opened the door to the patient's room, he'd noticed that certain smells were not present, narrowing the range of possible diagnoses. He could see the patient's eyes tracking him as he moved, so that removed more possibilities. As he got closer, he could see the patient's skin tone, his muscle tone, the color of his eyes, and the texture of his hair. etc., etc.—effectively, he was a living diagnostic machine, processing information from almost every sense. Yet, when initially asked, he appeared to have no idea how he had made the diagnosis!

The expert diagnostician executed a very complex, but very familiar, task without consciously thinking about it. To put what he did into words, the expert had to reconstruct his own experience, walking through his visit to the patient’s room—it was the first time in a long time he’d consciously thought about his diagnostic process for this kind of patient.

Experts work fast, they get specific tasks right, they know how to improve, and they’re better than the rest of us at tackling new challenges in their area of expertise. But building this expertise requires serious attention to short-term and long-term memory—and it also introduces its own blind spots and frailties. I’ll talk more about all of that in the course of the next couple posts.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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