To Develop Expertise, Motivation is Necessary but Insufficient

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.

What Would Happen if NASCAR Tried Right Turns?

With the exception of a few road course races, most of the NASCAR races are held on ovals. The cars always race counter-clockwise on the ovals, meaning the cars only turn left.

Given all the attention that learning and expertise has been getting, I’m deeply curious as to what would happen if for one race NASCAR went in the opposite direction, so that it was all right turns. I understand that they would probably have to do a lot of work to the cars, because the cars must be optimized for left turns, but put that aside. Would lap times be appreciably worse because the drivers would have trouble cornering? Would there be more crashes? Would the same drivers excel?

I think NASCAR should give it a shot. It would generate a lot of interest. I suspect, both among hardcore NASCAR fan and more casual sports fans.

I’ve even got the obvious name for the race: The Rite Aid 400.

Deliberate Practice: How Education Fails to Produce Expertise

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.