In Dan Coyle’s book, The Talent Code, he writes about deep practice in chapter 4, Three Rules of Deep Practice.  The journey he takes in the book to explore where talent comes from leads him to this idea of deep practice, the 10,000 hours of practice over a period of time to master a high-level skill.

He relates the story of Adriaan de Groot, a Dutch psychologist, who studied how chess masters became good at their skill.  What he found was that when you compare masters to the average chess player, masters are extremely adapt at seeing patterns on the chess board. 

 They were not seeing individual pieces, but recognizing patterns.

When he randomized the pieces the masters were no better than amateurs because their patterning strategies became useless.  De Groot concludes that

Skill consists of identifying important elements and grouping them into a meaningful framework.

Psychologists refer to this skill as chunking.

Coyle illustrates chunking with this example.  Try to memorize these two sentences:

  • We climbed Mount Everest on a Tuesday morning.
  • Gn inromya Dseut Anotser ev e Tnuomde bmilcew.

As he points out, you can easily remember the first sentence but not the second, even though the second sentence contains all the same letters as the first.  The letters in the first sentence are “chunked” into patterns that are recognizable, while the second one is not.

The major conclusion de Groot drew from his research was that skill development, even of the highest order, is a result of “nested accumulation of small, discrete circuits.”  He is referring to the neural circuits we create and reinforce as we develop patterns, and practice the patterns over and over again.  When a person engages in deep practice, whether learning to master a backhand in tennis or intricate chess moves, he is building enduring skills that are encoded in the neural circuits of the brain.


Rule One: Chunk it Up

With rule one, there is the implication that you will try, explore, fail, retry, explore some more, and then maybe succeed.  This cycle may go on and on until the patterns are built in your neural network.

 In reading this idea in Talent Code, I can only wonder whether we use these principles in our classroom to help students engage in deep practice.  I certainly think we see this operating on athletic fields, where students practice four days a week and have one or more competitive contests to test their skill development.  They get feedback from their coach on how they performed and go back to the practice space to work on skills that need refinement.  This cycle continues throughout an athletic season.  Deep practice leads to mastery.

 Is there a counterpart in the classroom with regard to the essential skills of the 21st Century: collaboration, creative and critical thinking, communication, problem-solving, reading comprehension, information literacy, and leadership?  Do teachers create lesson plans that embed these skills into the fabric of their lessons so that students engage in deep practice such that their neuronal networks become well constructed?  I wonder how teachers would answer this question and then verify that his or her lessons helped nurture the deep practice needed for students to mastery 21st Century skills.

Rule Two: Repeat It

Coyle writes:

Repetition is invaluable and irreplaceable.

I understand the importance of repetition in deep practice.  It makes total sense to me provided the student is practicing something that has meaning and value.  Coyle continues his insight into repetition with the statement:

Spending more time is effective–but only if you’re still in the sweet spot at the edge of your capabilities.

 As educators, I think we see this in our classrooms all the time.  The level of challenge for students has to be stretching them but not so much that they give up because they see the goal as not reachable.  They need to be in the sweet spot.  The challenge for the teacher is that the sweet spot will vary from student to student and depend on the discipline or topic.

 Rule Three: Learn to Feel It

Coyle shares a list of words that people used when they described what it was like being in a state of their most productive practice.  The words most commonly used were:

 Attention, Connect, Build, Whole, Alert, Focus, Mistake, Repeat, Tiring, Edge Awake

I think this list of words is very revealing.  I wonder how this would compare with a list of words that students would use to describe what they feel like or experience in their classrooms.  Do we teach our students to learn to “feel” the deep practice that leads to mastery?  Coyle shares a phrase from Martha Graham, the famous dance instructor, about “straining toward a target and falling just short,” she refers to this as:

 Divine dissatisfaction

Let me come full circle to why this piece from Coyle’s book, The Talent Code, strikes me as very interesting for educators to ponder.  If we want students to engage in the learning environment and come away with a deeper understanding (see my blog post, What is Understanding?) of the content and skills we value, we will need to give careful consideration to Coyle’s three rules that lead to deep practice–chunk it up into patterns, practice repetition, and help students learn to feel what it means to engage in deep practice.

So where do I see this happening in a classroom?  At Westminster, Jill Gough and some of her colleagues are helping students learn how to engage in deep practice when it comes to assessment.  The second chance model for doing test corrections (see post at, Experiments in Learning by Doing, Being Slow…Mindset…2nd Chances…Learning) allows students to repeat, practice, slow down, relearn, and improve their understanding.  Ms. Gough, a member of the CFT Faculty Cohort for two years, designed an action research project to develop and test her model.  It has proven to be so successful that she has built it into her Algebra 1 structure and writes about it in her blog.