Focused Attention, Deliberate Practice, and Balanced Learning Styles

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Learning's something we do.

Mostly, it's an unconscious activity. An instinctive skill, it's a natural talent that’s hardwired into our brains and bodies. Essentially, the learning we do is a genetically based, experience-driven capability we've had since human beings first appeared on the planet. Today, it's evolved into an extensive neurobiological network of automatic responses operating in ways that make sure we always react and adapt to the threats we’re constantly faced with.

Last month, in October's Coming of Age in the 21st Century blog, I profiled three types of learning journeys that each of us, in response to the threats we cope with every day, tends to be inextricably caught up in. Waxing poetic, I borrowed what Dr. Seuss, in his book, Oh the places you'll go!, proposed about the Bang-ups, Hang-ups, and Windows-not-lighted dangers we inevitably encounter as we're "off and away" on our respective life journeys. In a much less evocative way than Dr. Seuss might employ, I described these Bang-ups, Hang-ups, and Windows-not-lighted threats as specific mishaps that we're inevitably caught up in, and offered, as a complementary perspective to Dr. Seuss's threat descriptions, my sense of the three learning journeys we need to know about if we're going to react effectively to the Hang-ups, Bang-ups, and Windows-not-lighted dangers that are ours to deal with. 

Essentially, in last month's blog, I suggested that, whether or not we knew it, we were each being asked to:

  1. Identify for our selves the existing skills we already have that we need to improve.
  2. Discover for ourselves the new personal and professional skills we must develop.
  3. Experiment on our own with developing the new mindsets we need to cultivate.

At TLO, we understand that, in the post-modern, high-tech world we're now living in, the neurobiological talents we've developed to respond to our old and our new Hang-ups, Bang-ups, and Windows-not-lighted mishaps have been, for the most part, pre-empted by the formal, school-based educational systems that have recently been constructed to educate us. We realize that our formal education systems have become unchallengeable replacements for our genetic skills. But we also know that today, these formal school-based learning systems function in ways that both hide and overshadow our natural learning talents. Basically, while we understand school-based education is a tool we all need to make good use of, we also realize that this kind of institutionalized learning, by itself, will never be enough to prepare us for the dangers, threats, and challenges that come our way in the months, years, and decades ahead.

21st Century Learning

While classroom education is a fact of life, it's time for us to recognize that it's never going to offer us ways to master skills we already have but need to improve. It's never going to show us how to identify and master new personal and professional skills sets we're going to need to survive and thrive in the 21st Century. And, without a doubt, it's never going to help us learn how to develop the mindsets and Orders of Consciousness that we will need if we're ever going to understand the new technologies and scientific discoveries that are currently creating a new world for us all.

That's because all three of the life-long learning journeys described above require the kinds of unique capabilities that can never be taught in a formal classroom. These capabilities are real-world, life-long skill sets that we need to develop outside in our real-world lives. Three of these unique capabilities are particularly important:

  • Focused Attention
  • Deliberate Practice
  • Experiential Learning
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Focused Attention: Herb Simon was the first to point us toward the importance of Focused Attention. Simon is a Nobel Prize winning economist who’s most famous for his theory of bounded rationality. Forty years ago, while on his way to winning his Nobel Prize, Simon discovered one of the most important learning insights ever. He and his colleague Bill Chase proved that new chess players, if they're ever going to become grandmasters, have to spend 10,000 to 50,000 hours studying chess positions day after day for years. This rule, Simon showed, applies to everyone who wants to master any type of complex skill. In learning terms, Simon proved “Focused Attention” is a key element associated with the time and effort a novice has to invest to develop highly effective grandmaster level skills.

Focused Attention is a key because it asks the learner to engage in three preparatory activities -- Issue Selection, Habit Formation, and Disciplined Practices. These are the three micro-skills basic to Focused Attention. Issues Selection involves the choice of the overarching skill set that’s going to be developed. Habit Formation involves the translation of vague, long-range visual aspirations into real world motivation, the conversion of psychological intent into reliable action. Disciplined Practice involves the creation of habituated practice routines that have a fixed time and place in the learner’s daily schedule. These three micro-skill sets form the preliminary steps that a learner takes every day to set him or herself up for well-designed and structured practice sessions that produce the lived experience that allows the learner to evaluate their strengths and weaknesses on an ongoing basis. This kind of Focused Attention is what slims down a learning process that's aimed at mastery from 10,000 hours of practice time to something that's in the 5,000 hour range.

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Deliberate Practice: K. Anders Ericsson was the first to point us toward the importance of Deliberate Practice. Ericsson is an internationally recognized researcher in the psychology of expertise and human performance. In 1993, he confirmed Simon and Chase’s discoveries when he demonstrated that expert performance in almost any arena does in fact require the kind of focused attention that Simon and Chase said it did. But, in addition, Ericsson also proved that learning any complex skill really requires what he called “Deliberate Practice." Deliberate Practice is a set of activities that starts with and requires Focused Attention; i.e., an intensive, concentrated preoccupation with just one specific, self-selected competency.  But, beyond this single-mindedness, Deliberate Practice also asks the learner to “consciously create and nurture an all-consuming sense of personal motivation.” And, beyond even this, “a learner also has to pay serious attention to managing all the external distractions that inevitably intrude on one's focused attention efforts.” Ericsson, in other words, was telling us that there actually are two key elements involved in becoming a “grandmaster” of anything; Focused Attention and Deliberate Practice.

Deliberate Practice is a key because it asks the learner to commit themselves to a daily routine, one that includes intensive skill practice and, at the end of every practice session, a meta-cognitive effort aimed at evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of the practice sessions they’ve just completed. It also includes a reflexive pause which, from the overarching, metacognitive position that's created, allows learners to evaluate, in precise terms, (a) the ways in which they’re successfully advancing their learning program, and (b) whether or not their practice sessions are or are not moving their pursuit of mastery forward. These are Deliberate Practices' hallmark activities that reduce the practice time required from 5,000 hours down to time that can be in the neighborhood of 500 hours.

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Experiential Learning: David Kolb was the first to point us toward the importance of Experiential Learning. Kolb is the world's preeminent expert in the field of experiential learning. His book, Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning, revolutionized the field of adult learning. With it, Kolb shifted our focus away from classroom education, especially its focus on absorbing information and pre-cast knowledge, and turned it instead towards seeing adult learning as an endeavor that, first and foremost, must be focused on personal meaning making processes that are aimed at facilitating the dynamics of an “evolving self.” This book also showed us why Simon's insights about Focused Attention and Ericsson’s discoveries about Deliberate Practice are both on target. When he published his book, Kolb described the role that a well-balanced four-step experiential learning style plays in efficient and effective adult learning efforts. In effect Kolb, through his book, demonstrated how and why Balanced Learning is the element that both activates and integrates Simon & Chase's and Ericsson's contributions, melding them into a fulsome set of learning activities that are capable of boosting adult development efforts up into grandmaster levels.

Experiential Learning is pivotal because it grounds the learner’s practice efforts in a four-stage development process. This process is what shapes and drives a learner's Focused Attention and Deliberate Practice learning habits. Rigorously and consciously following the routine a balanced Experiential Learning effort creates is what provides learners with the kind of reliable lived experience they need to recollect and reflect. Given the availability of reliable lived experience, Experiential Learning asks its learners to pull together their most significant reflections about the strengths and weaknesses of their practice sessions, and translate these insights into some rough conceptual frames from which they can extract new implications for their next practice sessions.

These hypotheses then serve as guides for designing new real-world practice sessions, which, in turn, create new practice related experiences that then restarts the learning cycle. Together these three elements create the kind of learning processes that promote and support the development of grandmaster levels of competency.

Key Takeaways

Today, it’s clear: Any truly effective learning journey that aims for high levels of competency needs to include, at a minimum, Simon & Chase's, Ericsson’s, and Kolb’s discoveries, insights, and tools. Focused Attention, Deliberate Practice, and Balance Learning are three essential elements in any effective experience-based learning effort. 

  • Focused Attention is a key element because, as Simon and Chase showed us, high levels of competence aren't dependent on how much you know. Instead, they're a function of practice, practice and more practice. 10,000 hours and more was Simon and Chase's original proposition.
  • Deliberate Practice is a key element because, as Ericsson showed, practicing any new skill with mastery in mind isn't simply a matter of repeating over and over and over again what you've been told is the right way to do something. Instead, mastery of any new skill comes after you design, organize, and structure your practices in ways that intersperse intense, prolonged practice time with periods of critique,  reflection, solicitation of feedback, redesign, and rest. Ericsson also shows how and why Deliberate Practice must involve figuring out how to continually break down the macro skill sets your trying to master into increasingly finer and finer micro skill sets. Practice, reflection, redesign, feedback, and periodic rest are the best way to reduce the amount of practice time needed from 10,000 hours to something around range of 5,000 hours. 
  • Experiential Learning is the key element because, as Kolb showed, a balanced four-step cycle of learning is the best way to implement any practice routine.  Balanced Learning creates and maintains the kind of focused practice routines that can reduce the amount of time needed from 5,000 hours to 500 hours.

In this three-element model of experiential learning, Experiential Learning is the primary element. It's the fulcrum that skilled learners use to leverage the other two elements into reliable and efficient ways to master complex interpersonal skills in a manageable amount of time.



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