Episode 2: Deliberate Practice

Episode 2: Deliberate Practice
The Haverford Compass

00:00 / 17:02

In this episode, Peter and Charlie discuss practice, brains of London cabbies, mock trial, and more!


PG: Welcome to the compass! I’m Peter.


CB: And I am Charlie! Hey Peter, can I share something I recently learned with you?


PG: By all means.


CB: Did you know that London cab drivers (cabbies as they’re called) have different brains than everyone else? Like, structurally?


PG: Tell me more about that!


CB: Get this: London is a pretty big city, and it’s really hard to navigate. It’s not a grid system like Philadelphia or New York where all the streets are in numbered rows and columns. It’s labyrinthine.


PG: Labyrinthine!  


CB: There are a lot of one way streets, and there’s no organizational principle. You just can’t get around without a map.


PG: That sounds scary.


CB: Yeah! To be a cab driver, you have to spend three years studying the streets. AND you have to know it so well that when a tourist says, “oh, take me to Wolfgang Puck’s restaurant,” you know what they mean. You have to know all the famous landmarks, the order of businesses on a particular street, and names of neighborhoods. To get their license, cabbies have three different final oral exams where the instructor asks them how to get from one place to another, and then the cabbie has to give the street by street navigation of how to get from A to B.


PG: So like a human google maps!


CB: Yeah, really! And here’s the coolest part: the hippocampus is the part of the brain that deals with memory. Studies on cabbies show that from the time they start their training to when they get their license, their hippocampi literally grow.


PG: That’s wild!


CB: I know, right?


PG: As you were saying this, I thought of how, in the OAR, we talk a lot with students about how they improve at the skills they’re trying to hone at Haverford. And the same principles of practice that the cabbies demonstrated there can apply to playing the violin, writing code, or studying organic chemistry.


CB: What do you mean by the “Principles of Practice”?


PG: Well, I’ve been reading recently about deliberate practice. It’s a specific approach to learning a skill. Findings from psychology show that it’s the most effective approach to skill development. The goal of deliberate practice is to change the brain. You see, the brain has this quality called neuroplasticity: it can change based on the pressures it’s put under. Deliberate practice is about applying that pressure the right way, and this approach offers certain principles to guide one’s practice.


CB: [Pause tape sound] If you haven’t listened to our first episode, go back, listen to it. Because our discussion is going to build off of that. Ok, back to Peter [play tape sounds].


PG: So, in our last episode, we talked about how intelligence has been conceived over time, and we dove deeply into multiple intelligences theory, which proposes that the different aptitudes of the brain point to more than one form of intelligence. Charlie, which intelligence do you think the cabbies are utilizing here?


CB: Driving around London? Sounds like spatial intelligence.


PG: Right, and that’s the capacity to judge distances, visualize spaces, and the like. Now, you mentioned earlier that the cabbies’ hippocampi grow during this training process. As a cabby explores London, their brain makes physiological changes to the hippocampus in order to strengthen its spatial learning. We can see the cabby-in-training becoming an expert as their brain gets convinced that its current mechanisms for navigating the city are not sufficient.


CB: What do you mean by that?


PG: As you practice doing something, like driving around London for instance, the neural networks involved in the practice will get stronger and faster. These networks may even rearrange themselves, if the brain feels that this is necessary. This is what’s happening in the brain as someone gets more skilled through practice. Now the problem is that our brains would rather not change.


CB: I’m no biologist, but I would call that homeostasis.


PG: I’m no biologist, but I would say that’s rightt.


CB: So what you’re saying is, when a tourist asks the cabbie: ‘can you take me from Big Ben to Buckingham Palace’? Their neural networks go on fire, because they’re reliving the thousands of hours they’ve spent tracing the streets by map and moped.


PG: Whoa, really, thousands of hours?


CB: Yeah really – I read that they spend anywhere up to 10,000 hours taking different routes. This practice allows them to imagine any corner or street, what possible turns to make, and where those turns would lead. They’ve practiced this so much that their brain knows the logical operations intuitively without having to read a map. It’s not that they see everything all at once, but that they know exactly where to go next, almost subconsciously.


PG: Right! They’re developing their mental representations of the city.


CB: What exactly do you mean by a mental representation?


PG: It’s exactly what you were just describing – mental representations are the bridge between knowledge and skill. With the example of the cabbies, their mental representations of the city enable the cabbies to subconsciously know what to do when driving, using the knowledge they’ve consciously cultivated.


CB: Ah right – so it’s more than just a map in their heads, it’s a GPS spitting out directions too.


PG: That’s right, and you can only develop that by practicing the actual skill, which is driving around London.


CB: I think I see where you’re going with this. Let’s say that, instead of being a cabbie in London, I’m studying for a biology test. It sounds like you’re saying flash cards aren’t the right approach.


PG: Probably not, flash cards aren’t enough if your test involves more than just reciting facts. A lot of students study for a test by reading the textbook or making flash cards, but if you are studying for an exam that focuses on written explanations, rote memorization just doesn’t work. You want to practice the exact skill you’re going to be evaluated on.


CB: Gotcha. So is there one right way to practice?


PG: There kind of is! Anders Ericsson has spent the past few decades studying how people become experts. In his book Peak, he asks “What exactly do experts do to become so amazing?” And the answer is how they practice.


CB: Hang on a second, I don’t know if college students need to become experts just to take a test or quiz. Can Ericcson’s research apply for someone in, say, Econ 101?


PG: Well, the implications of Ericcson’s research are useful for anyone at any skill level. In particular, I want to put a spotlight on Ericsson’s finding that, to improve at something, your practice should be specific, immersive, informed, and challenging.


CB: That’s completely applicable to the average student.


PG: But what do these four adjectives mean? Specific, immersive, informed, and challenging. A student might demonstrate one of two of these qualities in their practice, or they have at some points in their practice, but may be missing the other qualities.


CB: I think we should see how these principles play out by asking students how they practice !


PG: Sounds great.


Student #1: Rosa Urquiza


Student #2: Elom Tamaklo


Student #3: My name is Elle James


CB: First up, specific.


S1: I’m trying to work on Academic Skills like get all my readings into a dialogue


CB: If you want to get better at something, you have to have a goal in mind.


S2: I want to speak in front of the UN general assembly


S3: One thing I want to get better at is making objections. Just making sure they’re clean and concise.


CB: Having something as watery as “I want to get better at Math,” will not give you the focused improvement you need.


PG: Next on the line: immersive practice. You can’t get better at something if you’re on facebook.


S2: Email checking is one of my biggest distractions this semester. Especially with being in a lot of extracurriculars because I’m getting all  sorts of emails.


PG: If the practice isn’t the only thing on your mind, the practice isn’t immersive.  


S2: I just listen to the voice that is coming out of my throat and just follow that voice and in following I’m pretty much focused.


S3: When I’m by myself what I do to set a timer often for ten minutes. It helps me to break it up so I don’t feel as overwhelmed.


CB: Third – Informed! You need someone to give you feedback on how you’re doing,


S2: So I like to practice on my friends, and I use their facial expressions, their level of engagement to engage whether I’m communicating


CB: like a teammate or coach, if you want to do better!


S3: I ask other attorneys often ask attorney to listen to what I have to say so that my responses are clean and concise.


CB: And you need to get feedback as often as possible.


S3: Another way I get feedback is going to older attorneys and practicing in front of them and hearing what they have to say from a more experienced perspective.


PG: Lastly, you gotta have practice that is challenging.


S2: I’m getting out of my comfort zones.


PG: If not pushing yourself to the next level, you’re not going to get there.


S2: I’m pushing myself to the next level by speaking in uncomfortable situations


PG: Ericsson found that experts got better because their practice was always uncomfortable.


S3: I watch of Youtube videos on Mock Trials, and there are a lot of real trial attorneys and they’ll give tips, and implementing those tips as I’m performing is how I like to challenge myself.


CB: It sounds like these students are all practicing pretty well.


PG: That’s right – when I hear them talk about practice, I think the main area for improvement is probably in specifying their short-term goals.


CB: Right, but it’s tough to get specific with academic goals – your skill in literary criticism is not as easy to measure as your skill in the 100 meter dash. But, you need to try.


PG: Yes, and in general, I would recommend talking to a professor to learn what specifically to strive towards.


CB: Now in terms of immersive practice, I think Elle had a great suggestion for how to stay focused: set a timer for something short, like 10 or 20 minutes, and fully immerse yourself for that time.


PG: Exactly. Any email or text message could wait 10 minutes. Now, when it comes to informed practice, I liked how both Elom and Elle ask their friends to provide feedback on their practice with speaking.


CB: And their strategy doesn’t just apply to speaking. Haverford has plenty of resources, like peer tutors and writing tutors, who can provide great feedback on your work.


PG: Lastly, practice needs to be challenging, as your brain won’t make changes that lead to improvement unless you challenge yourself. I like how Elom said that he deliberately puts himself in uncomfortable speaking situations to get better.


CB: This was a great start, but I feel like there’s more to say about how college students can engage in deliberate practice. You know who would have a lot to say about this?


PG: Who would that be?


CB: Our colleague, Brian Cuzzolina! He’s been working with college students for years to help them meet their academic goals and overcome hurdles to their progress.


PG: I’m sure he’d have a lot to say!


CB: Let’s find out!


PG: I am here with Brian Cuzzolina, interim director of the OAR, and Charlie and I have been talking about DB and how students can apply it to their lives, and we’re wondering if you could talk about working with students about their experience towards this end.


Brian Cuzzolina: Yeah so prior coming to Haverford I worked at Thomas Jefferson University particularly with High School students and Med students and helping them really kind of think through what it means to learn through their process of Deliberate Practice and becoming a professional.


PG: So The first principle of deliberate practice is to have a specific goal. How do you work with students to come up with the right goal for them?


BC: A common thing that I’ll hear students say “I want to do better,” A lot of what I’ll do is help them kind of break down, and how do you measure that? What does better mean? It may be a specific grade, or some it might be, “I want to explain this to my grandmother, ” then students have a way to reflect on how they’re doing this semester.


PG: So The next principle of deliberate practice is receiving feedback from a coach. How can students make the most of their professors, advisors, and other resources?


BC: I think just being in conversation, never think that you’re being corrected, even if sometimes it might sound harsh, it’s still constructive, you’re still able to see where those areas of improvement are.


PG: So the next principle is receiving feedback, but let’s say a student gets a low score on a test or a paper – what should they do next?


BC: Take a deep breath, maybe give yourself some time, but don’t bury the exam in the back of the bookback, don’t burn it, don’t crumple it up, hold onto it, and then when you’re ready, come back to it, look at what you got wrong, and question that, and is it reflective of just the way that you took the exam. There are strategies you can do to kind of help mitigate that. And the other thing to is focus on what you got right as well. So this is all a part of that process of getting better.


PG: So the next principle is to work outside your comfort zone. But, as Charlie and I just discussed, working outside your comfort zone is uncomfortable. How can a student motivate themselves when they’re not feeling excited to work on challenging math problems or to learn grammar in a confusing new language?


BC: Think big picture. And I’ll say this often when I’m working with a student on their thesis or research and they’re so mired in the details, t sit back, think why you want to get better at this, why you want to improve, think of that person who’s inspiring you to do this,


PG: There’s this exercise I sometimes do with students where I ask them, imagine yourself, as someone who is about to graduate, what is the sentence you want to use to describe your college experience. and then we talk about that. A related principle of deliberate practice is that practice has to be immersive – you can’t be distracted when you’re practicing. So what are some strategies that students can use for improving their focus while they’re working?


BC: First and foremost, is technology. We may think that we think we can multitask, we’re kind of deluding ourselves. And I say this as the biggest hypocrite as well, I’m just as glued to my phone as possible, but so much research is coming out and showing that the way that just the ways our minds are created and designed that we are really only able to work at one task at a time. Especially when looking at high performing college students they found, one aspect of their success has been able to. the amount of time being able to stay on a task. being able to wean out those distractions, turn off your phone, being able create a space to block out common distractors you have. But also knowing yourself and being able to say no to the world now and then.


Peter: So Brian, why would you say thinking about practice in this way is important to the college student?


BC: So the research around deliberate practice really looks at world class performers, athletes, in terms of what are the things that they do that make them the best of the best. And the best obvious connection between what we talk about practice would be studying. Here’s a concrete strategy that I share with students is thinking about so preparing for finals for example at haverford. If they’re going to take their math final on tuesday at 7 o’clock, all that time that they’re preparing for that reading period, they’re preparing for it at 7 in the evening, so that when they’re taking the final, they’ve already had practice in terms of thinking and doing math at that time of day, and so there’s the routine set in, and I think that’s kind of a wonderful way to approach finals here. And so in closing and anyone who has spent any time in a coaching session with me and so self-awareness is a key in deliberate practice.


CB: I think Brian’s comments highlight how anyone can develop strong habits of practice, no matter what they’re trying to get better at.


PG: Absolutely. And I think the key word there is “habit”: once you know what sort of practice you want to engage in, the next step is to then figure out how you’re going to make it a part of your regular routine.


CB: Sure, but daily life in college is a whirlwind of assignments, activities, and commitments – what is the best way to develop a day-to-day routine?


PG: That sounds like a whole discussion unto itself!


CB: We’ll have it next time on the Compass! OAR intern Talia Scott will join us to talk about how she designed her daily routine to improve her performance and daily life. That’s all for this episode! We’d like to take a moment to thank everyone who helped this production of the Compass: Rosa Urquiza, Elom Tettey-Tamaklo, Elle James, Brian Cuzzolina, the other Staff and interns at the OAR.


Peter: You can learn more about Deliberate Practice and the brains of Cab drivers by reading our show notes on our website THE HAVERFORD COMPASS DOT COM.


Charlie: If you have a topic you would like to hear more about, email us at HC DASH O – A – R  AT Haverford DOT E – D – U


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