Peak Performance

Student teachers practice teaching kindergarte...
Student teachers practice teaching kindergarten at the Toronto Normal School, Canada (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I mentioned last week that I did a lot of reading.  The first book I actually tackled was Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise.  I liked this book a lot, and much of it is applicable in my teaching, in mentoring others, and in my own efforts to get better at things.  The message at the heart of the book is this: “There’s no such thing as talent, only practice and hard work.”  The author is a longtime researcher in the area of expertise or how do experts become experts.  It’s a fascinating area.  Our most obvious and observable experts are sports stars.  It’s easy to see as someone racks up more home runs or more gold medals or beats their own records.  Their improvement is easily measurable.  When it comes to areas of expertise outside of physical prowess, what measures exist to see that expertise?  And that’s where things get really interesting.

First, just like our muscles, our brains can be changed through practice.  Musicians and chess players, for example build up areas of their brains related to those skills.  Second, people who develop skills in mental areas are actually developing mental models of their activity, making it possible for them to retrieve information more quickly (or at all).  One example the author gives is London cab drivers.  Their brains have been examined, and indeed, cab drivers who have been driving longer have more developed spatial areas of the brain.  And, through interviews, it’s apparent that they’ve developed extensive mental models that allow them to create routes from point A to point B more quickly.  It’s like indexing information in your brain.  And finally, in many areas, specific effective training techniques have been developed that have proven to have effective outcomes in developing expertise.

That last idea turns out to be really important, especially as the idea of reaching expert levels of performance applies to our everyday lives.  Just because you’ve been doing something for a long time doesn’t mean you’re an expert or that you can’t get even better.  To reach peak performance, one must participate in deliberate practice, practice that takes you out of your comfort zone and challenges you to get better.  This kind of practice is something that is baked into the work of an athlete or musician.  They spend hours each day practicing, often with a coach or trainer who pushes them beyond their comfort zone.  But teachers, for example, don’t have this opportunity, necessarily, unless they take the opportunity.  Expert teachers, in my mind, have studied the research on teaching and learning, and they try new techniques with their students.  They then collect feedback on the new techniques–through surveys, through having someone observe, or through measuring the outcomes of their students–and use that feedback to determine if the technique works and what they might do even better.  They keep using that technique, and they get better at it.  But some teachers shy away from using new techniques and keep doing things the same way, and then claim to be experts just because they’ve been teaching for a long time.  And maybe their student outcomes are just fine so they see no reason to change.  But I always want to ask, “Could they be better?”

I think one of my favorite things about the book is that the author believes that anyone can become an expert in something.  It’s a matter of practice, yes, but also a matter of finding something that you are motivated enough to stick with when the practice gets hard.  Because it will get hard.  You will plateau.  You will get frustrated, etc.  He gives specific real life examples of how people pushed past difficulties.  And they’re not just, “And then, Steve became a chess master.” without detail.  He describes how Steve got there.

As a teacher, I also especially liked his advice for education.  My colleagues and I have conversations about teaching skills versus knowledge all the time. He succinctly puts his advice to teachers like this:

Begin by identifying what students should learn how to do. The objectives should be skills, not knowledge. In figuring out the particular way students should learn a skill, examine how the experts do it. In particular, understand as much as possible about the mental representations that experts use, and teach the skill so as to help students develop similar mental representations. This will involve teaching the skill step by step, with each step designed to keep students out of their comfort zone but not so far out that they cannot master that step. Then give plenty of repetition and feedback; the regular cycle of try, fail, get feedback, try again, and so on is how the students will build their mental representations.

He also suggests working with students to help them develop some area of expertise while they’re students so that they can sense what success feels like and use that experience to develop expertise in other areas.

There are lots of other tidbits and specifics in the book, but one thing he made clear at the end, knowing how to develop expertise is incredibly important:

[P]eople coming into the work force today should expect to change careers two or three times during their working lives.


As for the children being born today, no one knows, but I think it’s safe to say that the changes won’t be slowing down. How do we as a society prepare for that? In the future most people will have no choice but to continuously learn new skills, so it will be essential to train students and adults about how to learn efficiently.

We, as educators, often talk about teaching our students how to learn or to become lifelong learners.  This research shows us precisely how we can accomplish that goal.