September 29, 2016

By Dr. Gene Kerns, Chief Academic Officer

For a number of years, I have been fascinated by research on the science of expertise. Many of us were first introduced to this topic in Malcolm Gladwell’s bestseller, Outliers: The Story of Success. In that book, he presented multiple examples of how to establish “the 10,000-hour rule,” claiming that in nearly any field, from musicology to teaching, 10,000 hours of practice are necessary to achieve expertise (Gladwell, 2008).

Gladwell’s assertion was based on a review of research by many people, most notably Dr. K. Anders Ericsson of Florida State University. While Gladwell’s rule is somewhat accurate at a high level, a critical element is missing. Gladwell merely references practice, while virtually all others in the field place a modifier before the word. For most, it is “deliberate practice” (Ericsson and Pool, 2016; Colvin, 2008), although Coyle (2009) prefers “deep practice” and Syed (2010) prefers “purposeful practice.”

Really, Gladwell’s rule that expertise requires “10,000 hours of practice” could be improved by saying “10,000 hours of deliberate practice.” Although in reality, 10,000 hours of carving stone won’t make you Rodin, nor will that amount of time with a tennis ball and a racket make you Serena Williams. There’s also a problem with the “10,000 hour” part because depending on the field, more or less time might be required, but that’s another blog!

Ultimately, after consuming a good quantity of the research on the science of expertise, a key question we need to ask ourselves is “What differentiates the ‘deliberate practice’ done by experts from the ‘practice’ that most of us undertake?” This is a critical question for educators because Ericsson and Pool (2016) claim that deliberate practice “is the most powerful approach to improving learning that has yet been discovered.”

I conceptualize this delineation with “The Four Rs”: repetition, resistance, results, and recovery.


First, deliberate practice requires a certain number of repetitions because, as Coyle (2009) points out, when we practice things repeatedly, we physiologically alter our brains by building up a fatty substance called myelin, which acts like insulation for brain circuits. According to Coyle (2009), “myelin transforms narrow alleys (of unpracticed skills in the brain) into broad, lightning-fast super-highways” of skill and precision.


For skills to grow optimally, we need resistance. According to Ericsson, Prietula, and Cokely (2007), “When most people practice, they focus on things they already know how to do. Deliberate practice is different. It entails considerable, specific, and sustained efforts to do something you can’t do well—or even at all.” This is not unlike Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky’s (1978) concept of the “zone of proximal development” (ZPD), which he defined as “the distance between the actual developmental level…and the level of potential development…under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers” (p. 86).


Results are critical because when we undertake in deliberate practice, the intensity can be grueling. Ericsson, Krampe, and Tesch-Römer (1993) asserted that “in the absence of adequate feedback, efficient learning is impossible and improvement only minimal even for highly motivated subjects.” To be willing to do the grueling work that mastery requires, we must be able to see that we are becoming more proficient.


Finally, true deliberate practice requires intense focus, and it is so difficult that it can only be endured for a certain period. Studies across multiple domains vary, with maximum practice times typically ranging from two to four hours a day at most, with the possible exception of physical pursuits. Ericsson, Krampe, and Tesch-Römer (1993) noted that “to maximize gains from long-term practice, individuals must avoid exhaustion and limit practice to an amount from which they can recover on a daily or weekly basis.”

Learn more

Looking for more insights on deliberate practice? Check out Dr. Kerns’ book, Unlocking Student Talent: The New Science of Developing Expertise.

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