Talent vs. Deliberate Practice

A few weeks ago when my mind was all abuzz about Peak, one really concrete and hopeful thought danced in my brain: deliberate practice trumps talent every time. In Peak, Anders Ericsson describes how inherent ability can give someone an early advantage because an activity comes a little easier at first, but the advantage goes away in favor of practice. As an example, he points to chess grandmasters. Grandmasters as a group have higher than average IQs, but there is no relationship between IQ and ranking within the class of grandmasters, suggesting IQ may be helpful for sticking with chess initially but the advantage is overwhelmed over time by deliberate practice.

Hambrick and Meinz have done‚Äč some pretty compelling research, though, that in at least one context, inherent ability is a predictor of success even controlling for time spent in deliberate practice. They studied the sight reading abilities of piano players and measured skill as a function both of time spent deliberately practicing and of working memory capacity.

And, indeed, piano players in the high working memory, low deliberate practice group nearly, though not quite, matched the performance of the low working memory, high deliberate practice group. On one level, deliberate practice did win out against ability, but inherent ability made a significant difference, and the advantage never faded, unlike Ericsson’s grandmaster example. Piano players with high working memory capacity were better sight readers than those with low working memory capacity but equivalent deliberate practice.

Clearly, there is more work to do to figure out how to reconcile the differing role of innate ability in chess and piano sight reading, but the good news is that deliberate practice still trumps ability.

But natural abilities matter, too, at least to varying extents. I’m reminded of The Success Equation, where Michael J. Mauboussin describes the role of skill versus luck in professional sports. Most professional sports have achieved over time greater parity among players, increasing the role of luck in winning. Not basketball, though. He theorizes that while most sports have benefited from ever increasing pools of players to choose from as recruiting goes international, in basketball the pool has remained artificially constrained because the average height keeps going up, raising the bar to entry. There just aren’t that many people in the world who are 6’8″. That’s a physical attribute rather than a cognitive one, but the point is there are sometimes elements beyond our control that do matter.

Deliberate practice always matters, though.


I really enjoyed how Pedro De Bruyckere, Paul Kirschner, and Casper Hulshof in the book Urban Myths about Learning and Education, when talking about the persistence of the learning styles myth, refer to Kurt Vonnegut’s* concept of a granfalloon. A granfalloon is a group formed based on arbitrary criteria for purposes of social identity. “Visual learners,” for instance, like to think of themselves as belonging to that category of people.

We seek to belong to granfalloons as a way to define who we are, and who we aren’t.

*I love Vonnegut, by the way. Many years back I read his entire catalog in publication order. Stunning.

Post-Enterprise Thinking

A few weeks ago I was at the EDMAX conference. Learning geeks from the top 25 CPA firms get together and talk shop. It’s really engaging.

There has been a lot of emphasis recently in my firm on enterprise thinking–emerging from one’s silo in pursuit of more inclusive decision-making.

What I like about EDMAX is that it is an example of post-enterprise thinking. No firm has secrets from the others; we want to collectively advance the profession because we believe that we are serving the public trust.

ADDIE as a Problem Solving Model

When I had the privilege to work with David Jonassen a number of years ago, his thoughts on problem solving models made an impression. He spoke, among other things, of how generic problem solving models have been shown to be too generic to actually help people solve real world problems. So, for example, telling someone to first consider possible causes isn’t really helpful.

I’ve seen ADDIE upheld as a useful basic framework for thinking about instruction. It certainly lays out some of the basics like the importance of evaluation, and it has an “industry standard” feel that helps credibility when talking to non-instructional designers (and novice instructional designers).

I wonder if ADDIE has the same issue as generic problem solving models–too generic to be useful. I saw someone recently present ADDIE by using an analogy of how he solved a home appliance problem, which I thought was unfortunate because ADDIE is definitely too generic to be a useful general problem solving model. But in terms of instructional design, it is probably best to think of it as a framework rather than a process. The focus should be on the processes one uses for analysis, design, development, implementation, and evaluation.


Many of the myths debunked in Urban Myths about Learning and Education aren’t big news–I would hope that by 2017 the vast majority of teachers would be aware for instance that multitasking is bad for learning–but I was delighted to read the assertion that there is evidence suggesting that 2.5% of the population are in fact supertaskers. Supertaskers are wired to very efficiently move back and forth between tasks, minimizing the multitasking penalty.

Fascinating! I’ll need to read more. The biggest question if it looks like there is something to this: can supertasking be taught? What are the costs of supertasking?

The Role of Technology in Improving K-12 Education

Like most people, I live in a school district that features an administration and staff that really care about students and about building their own skills as educators. They care about the community and about engaging with parents.

One initiative in the works in our district is an investment in technology to encourage educators to better use active problem-solving-based instruction.

At least, that’s what the initiative sounds like. In reality, I think it’s much better than that. I believe the effort is focused on supporting educators’ use of active problem-solving-based instruction and providing the education and tools, including technology tools, that can help.

The last two paragraphs sounds like they describe the same thing–more technology and more problem-solving-based instruction, but one leads with technology, the other with pedagogy. The distinction is critical because leading with technology makes adoption of technology the end goal.

Technology is not a goal in and of itself; it is an enabler for higher level goals. The higher level goals are the ones that need to be embraced. If they can be achieved without an investment in technology, great. If an investment in technology will advance the goal meaningfully, let’s do it. The critical piece is to stay focused on the end goals and not let achievement of the enabling goals alone be the criteria for success.

Small Buffy Hiatus

I’ve really enjoyed Joss Whedon’s work over the years, especially Firefly and The Avengers, so I’ve found myself recently sucked into Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which I’d never seen and which has interfered with my web journal time.

I just finished the final season. Nice premise for closing the series, but I found the “chosen one” aspect reminiscent of midi-chlorians, with the same problem: why should being a Jedi or a Slayer depend on some preexisting condition that is out of one’s control?

Maybe I’m too influenced by Peak and its critique of humanity’s errant belief that talent trumps deliberate practice.