Lots of readers of my entry on learning languages have said that the only reason I learned French well the second time (with the Assimil course) is that I was motivated. Here is one example: “Guy, the main reason that you learned French this time was because you wanted to learn it this time.”
Understanding the role of motivation in learning is important for designing productive learning environments — i.e. for learning well — so I would like to discuss it further.
Yes, motivation is important for learning! When I was in high school and training for the U.S. Physics Olympiad team, we heard (maybe apocryphal) stories about how our counterparts were being trained in the USSR: Candidates who didn’t make the cut got sent to the army. This kind of motivation, I thought, would definitely lead me to put in the needed hours.
To agree with the readers’ comments more strongly: For learning, motivation is necessary. However, there is a distinction between necessary and sufficient. Although motivation is necessary, it is not sufficient.
How do you tell if we’re getting better at a sport or a game, when you can never pit players from different eras against each other? For example, could Tom Brady carve up Pittsburgh’s Steel Curtain defense of the 1970s? Who would win one-on-one, Michael Jordan (in his prime) or LeBron James? Could Justin Verlander strike out Babe Ruth? Outside of video games, we’ll never know.
The obvious exceptions are track and field events, where accomplishments are measured in time and distance. And in those cases, we actually have been consistently chipping away at records, running faster, jumping higher etc. Though the recent use of performance-enhancing drugs has certainly tainted that “progress.”
But what about chess? Players are judged by a sophisticated rating system, though there’s a thought that scores have been inflated recently. A pair of academics have set out to address this by comparing the quality of play over the years. In their recent paper, Kenneth W. Regan, a computer science professor at the University of Buffalo, and Guy Haworth, an engineering professor at the University of Reading, examine the quality of players’ moves, rather than win-or-lose outcomes. Their conclusion is that yes, we are getting better at chess.
As a physics student, I found that I could solve most of the problems simply by looking at derivations and listening carefully to my reactions to the equations. A soft voice inside me would say, “No, that term just doesn’t seem right. Go and find out what went wrong there.” Or, “Ah, these terms hang together and the result feels right. It must be okay.” And it almost always worked out. My piano teacher would do the same when playing an unfamiliar piece of music. She could play it just by making sure it sounded right.
Were these just party tricks? Or was a more fundamental process going on?
Thanks to recent, hugely popular books about the development of expertise, the term deliberate practice is coming into common usage as the kind of practice that produces expertise.
Deliberate practice requires careful reflection on what worked and what didn’t work. A budding concert pianist may practice a particularly troublesome passage listening for places where his fingers do not flow smoothly. A chess student may spend hours analyzing one move of a world-championship chess match trying to see what the grandmasters saw. This kind of practice demands time for reflection and intense concentration, so intense that it is difficult to sustain for longer than 3 hours per day.
As I have learned more about deliberate practice, I often think about its lessons for the educational system. And they are not happy ones.