Learning How to Learn

In All, Blog by Robert PoolLeave a Comment

After spending the last eight years reading about deliberate practice, talking about deliberate practice, thinking about deliberate practice, and writing about deliberate practice, I thought I was familiar with all the different possible aspects of the topic. But a recent conversation with Paul Janson, a student in cognitive studies at Columbia University, showed me how wrong I was.

Paul Janson

I first met Paul back in July 2016 when he wrote me and Anders about a mobile approach to learning music that he was developing. A couple of years earlier he had quit his job to go back to school in order to study how people learn, and he was combining those studies with his love of music. In particular, he was developing what he hoped would be a highly effective way for individual students to connect with and learn from private instructors via mobile app, using the principles of deliberate practice.

Fast forward a year, and Paul’s initial plan has evolved into something much more tightly focused on one particular aspect of learning to play a musical instrument—learning how to practice effectively. He is developing an Internet site devoted to “practice coaching”—in essence, teaching people how to improve their practice techniques. He and his colleagues are not acting as music teachers or trying to replace teachers. They leave it up to music teachers (or instructional videos, or whatever source a student chooses) to supply the instruction in musical technique that is necessary for anyone who wants to learn how to play an instrument better. But they recognize that even with good technique instruction, students may not always practice a technique well. So their site is devoted to teaching people how to practice better—with the understanding that better practice will inevitably lead to better playing.

As anyone who has read Peak knows, there are many different approaches to practice, and their effectiveness varies quite a lot. Some are essentially useless—you could “practice” for years and never get much better, if at all. And one particular approach—deliberate practice—is the most effective way known to get better in essentially any field.

Many people who are learning to play an instrument work with a trained instructor. Children in school generally work under a music teacher. Individuals who are out of school often hire a private instructor. And in these cases, as long as the music teacher is reasonably competent, the student will be trained to use the deliberate practice approach to learning music. These are not the music students Paul is interested in helping.

Besides these people there is a large and growing group of people who are looking to the Internet to help them learn to play an instrument. Particularly in the case of the guitar and the piano, but also the violin and some other instruments, there are huge numbers of music lessons on the Internet, many of them free, and some of them offered on music learning websites that have large collections of lessons available for a relatively small fee—far less than it would take to work with a private music teacher. The instruction ranges from introductory lessons to lessons on how to play a particular song and lessons on advanced techniques.

The problem with these lessons, Paul observed, is that they show a student what to practice but then generally leave it to the student to figure out how to practice. In short, Paul noticed that traditional music teachers actually teach their students two very different things: They show them what to do in order to play an instrument correctly, and they train them in the proper way to practice. Only one of these things is taught in most Internet lessons.

I think this is a brilliant and important observation. Traditionally people have seen music teachers as doing one thing: teaching students how to play an instrument. And it has seemed like one thing because the training in the proper way to practice has just been part of the bigger picture. The teacher introduces a new technique and gives the student a series of exercises to practice at home. At the next lesson the teacher listens to the student perform, picks out the flaws and weaknesses, and offers some suggestions for how to improve on those specific issues. And so on. Over time the student absorbs this particular approach to learning—i.e., deliberate practice—and internalizes it so that the student, even in times when there is no teacher involved, will still approach practice in a way that maximizes its effectiveness.

But a student who is trying to learn to play the guitar or piano or some other instrument from lessons on the Internet gets instruction mostly on what to do and not on how to practice it. And that is the gap that Paul is working to fill in.

Although he and his colleagues are still finalizing the details of their program, Paul described their approach to me in general terms and offered some specific examples of the sorts of things they will do to help people learn to practice in the right way. Their target audience is beginner and intermediate students who are not in a formal learning program. Their goal is not to teach specific skills or techniques but rather to show students how to structure their practice time so as to get the most out of it. To help students become better learners, Paul told me, he and his colleagues emphasize the “nuts and bolts” of practice: How consistently are you sitting down to practice? What are you prioritizing? Are you isolating the challenging spots?

One rule of thumb that they provide to students is that they should spend 80 percent of their practice time on the 20 percent of the lesson that is giving them the most difficulty. They have a particular focus on techniques to help students get past sticking points—those parts of a lesson that at first encounter seem impossible to master. There are a number of well known strategies for dealing with these challenges—strategies that music teachers are familiar with, but that independent students might not know about. One example is simply to slow the tempo down to the point that a series of notes that once seemed impossible to play becomes accessible. After practicing enough to master the section at that tempo, the student increases the speed on the metronome slightly and repeats. Over time the student’s speed increases to the point that the impossible has become possible.

Paul’s plan is to market his program to music teachers with websites and YouTube channels that offer music courses and lessons over the Internet. By combining that program with their own, the teachers can offer something that is much closer to the traditional—and highly effective—approach to teaching music, with students being taught both what to practice and how to practice.

And eventually Paul plans to expand his target audience to include students who are working with music teachers. Most music teachers struggle to get their students to practice—and to practice effectively—Paul told me. “With Pivot,” he said, “a teacher could create his or her very own practice group (or 2 or 3 for different ages or ability levels) and plug the students into a Fitbit-like experience that tracks engagement, shows leaderboards, connects to our how-to content, with the addition of the teacher’s and other students’ thumbs-ups, as well as teacher comments and feedback on their progress and practice recordings.”

I see no reason that the same approach could not be used in other areas. The simplest would be those areas in which the teaching and practice techniques are already well developed—classical ballet, chess, some sports—but I suspect that the greatest potential lies in those fields where the best practice techniques have not yet been settled on. Medicine comes to mind, or engineering, and perhaps some areas of business. I can imagine a future in which practice coaches could help doctors or engineers or businesspeople shape their practice routines to maximize their effectiveness. The advantage of this is that the coach would not have to be, for example, a world-class doctor in order to help doctors learn how to improve. He or she would just have to know enough about medicine to determine which approaches to practicing one’s medicinal skills would be best. I, for one, will be watching with interest to see if such practice coaches do become popular in the future.


For more information visit www.pivotpracticecollective.com, which at the time of this writing is still mostly under construction but which is steadily being added to.

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