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The authors of this book run “Uncommon Schools”, a network of 32 charter public schools across Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York. The first author, Doug Lemov , is also known for his earlier book, “Teach Like A Champion” that is exclusively geared towards teachers to improve their effectiveness. This book is also, in a way, aimed at teachers, educators, etc. though  the authors suggest that some of the techniques are more general in nature that can be be applicable to any field.

In the introduction , the authors verbalize the thought process behind the book,

What does effective practice look like? What separates true practice from repetition or performance? And what were the key design principles to ensure that practice truly made performance better? And so we arrived at the work before you: a collection of 42 rules to shape and improve how you use practice to get better.

The book, as it clear from the subtitle, talks about 42 meta rules( getting better at getting better) framed by the authors based out their years of experience in running “Uncommon Schools”.  These 42 rules are categorized in to 6 sections, i.e “Rethinking Practice”, “How to Practice?”, “Using Modeling”,”Feedback”, “Culture of Practice “ and “Post Practice”.   Let me list down a few rules that I felt were applicable in a broader context

Section I – Rethinking Practice

Rule 1 Encode Success :
The idea behind this rule is that “Practice makes permanent”. So if your method of practice is wrong and you log in a lot of hours practicing, performance is going to be mediocre. The rule says that we usually romanticize failure that lead to success. While failure may build character and tenacity, its not  good at building skills. Practice should entail working in such a way that there is a sequence of mini-successes along the path. This rule is different from what one generally gets to read where practice involves constant struggle and failures. This mindset will make one fix the problem right away, thus ensuring that there is a success element before moving on. In the context of teaching or learning math, this becomes crucial. Every concept be it an axiom or a theorem or an equation needs to be followed up by a quick test to check whether the students are getting it or not.

Rule 2 Practice the 20 : 
The idea behind this rule is to focus your time on 20% of things that drive 80% of the success. In a school setting this would mean that a teacher should customize the quizzes/ lessons so that each student works on his strengths and does not dissipate energy on things that will he/she might become merely good at. Being great at the most important things is more important than being good at more things that are merely useful. No wonder the online courses are a big hit amongst the students. You learn according to your strengths rather than some predetermined syllabus.

Rule 3 Let the Mind Follow the Body : 
Once you have learned a skill to automaticity, your body executes, and only afterwards does your mind catch up. This is evident in sports, music and I guess in many other domains where there is a premium placed for speed , fast innovation.

While you are executing a series of complex skills and tasks that were at one time all but incomprehensible to you, your mind is free to roam and analyze and wonder. If you use practice to build mastery of a series of skills, and if you build up skills intentionally, you can master surprisingly complex tasks and in so doing free your active cognition to engage with other important tasks.

Rule 4 Unlock Creativity . . . with Repetition : 
The more you can do something in autopilot, the more your mind can wander , analyze and make surprising connections. Once you put in a lot of practice and do some of the complex tasks in auto-pilot mode, you can learn stuff more deeply.

Rule 5 Replace Your Purpose (with an Objective) :
Quantify your work , i.e. develop your own metrics to track your practice sessions.

Rule 6 Practice “Bright Spots”  : 
Drawing from Dan and Chip Heath who coined the term “Bright Spots” (overlooked and under leveraged points that actually work), the rule says that it is crucial to keep track of what’s working for you. Let’s say you understand something well by seeing a visual, then its imperative that you look for such kind of visuals to aid your understanding. To be specific, for a long time I had difficulty understanding conditional expectation of a random variable given another random variable. Well, conditional probability is something that is intuitively easy to understand. But conditional expectation is a vastly different animal. Years ago I came across a visual that just made the concept clear and it has stuck firmly in my mind.  Since then, I have always tried to visualize any type of operator / random variable / formula in terms of pictures. Once I can associate a good visual with a definition/theorem/proposition, things stick in my mind. I guess one must keep observing ourselves, to note these “bright spots” in various contexts.
In essence , the rule says “practice strengths”

Rule 7 Differentiate Drill from Scrimmage : 
Understanding these terms are essentially to understanding this rule. A drill deliberately distorts the setting in which participants will ultimately perform in order to focus on a specific skill under maximum concentration and to refine that skill intentionally. Pick any thing you want to master, isolate one specific aspect of the process and practice. One can easily relate a “drill” in the context of playing an instrument. Suppose you are playing a set of notes on 16 beat cycle(Teentaal). Playing it on a 12 beat cycle(Ektaal) and then playing the same notes on a 10 beat cycle(Jhaptaal), would be qualify as a drill. Or keeping the same taal and increasing the tempo of the notes would also qualify as a “drill”. In a sense you are creating an artificial environment of varying taals for the same set of notes/swaras. No one does this in real performance. Usually the beat cycle remain constant for a specific rendition. But the “drill” makes you focus intensely on mastering those specific notes. A scrimmage, by contrast, is designed not to distort the game but to replicate its complexity and uncertainty.  In the context of music, this would mean giving a playing in front of your friends / a small group of people so that you are ready to face the actual audience. Both are essential but the authors say that “drill” matter more than “scrimmage”.

Rule 8 Correct Instead of Critique How to Practice
Practice is about inscribing habits on the brain through repetition with variation. What makes you execute an action in performance is having done it in practice. So critique— merely telling someone that she did it wrong— doesn’t help very much. Only correction, doing it over again right, trains people to succeed. This rule says that a mistake should be followed up by at least 4 to 5 times of doing it the right way. The rule says

It may be worth reflecting that the body’s neural circuits have very little sense of time. If you do it right once and wrong once, it’s encoded each way equally in your neural circuitry. It may matter little which one happened first. The ratio is one to one. If you are correcting, then, correct in multiples.

Section II – How to Practice?

Rule 9 Analyze the Game :
“Moneyball” is a great success story for a short period of time. Soon the model was quickly replicated by every club and it did not become a differentiating factor. The authors hypothesize that Billy Beane, the manager of Oakland A’s was in fact wrong in his thinking that skillsets are pretty much fixed and all one needs is to trade off one player against the other , much like trading stocks. The rule takes a dig at such an assumption and says that, had Billy Beane gone one step ahead and analyzed the reasons behind players’ superior performance, may be he would have turned Oakland A’s in to a talent hotbed. So, mere analysis of the game is not enough. As a coach, you have to describe those skills to others so that they are given some sort of a map.

Rule 10 Isolate the Skill  :
When teaching a technique or skill, practice the skill in isolation until the learner has mastered it.

Rule 11 Name It :
Naming a specific skill or technique becomes a powerful shorthand for talent development.

Rule 12 Integrate the Skills :
Simulate the performance environment so that you can judge how your skills work together.

Rule 13 Make a Plan :
Quantify your practice plan. The more thought you put in to preparing the plan, the better the practice session turns out to be.

Rule 14 Make Each Minute Matter :

Get a metaphorical whistle , so that you know when you are wasting time and doing something that is taking away from your valuable practice time.

Section III – Using Modeling

Most of rules in this section are too specific to teachers in a classroom environment, except possibly Rule 19.

Rule 19 Insist They “Walk This Way”  :
Sometimes replicating the action as it is, might be beneficial than trying to customize the implementation.  The various steps in activity might have a deeper meaning and you miss by customizing it. To give a specific example, let’s say you are trying to prove a theorem in a math text. You wander for while, you start out with a few definitions, lemmas but let’s say you get nowhere. It is sometimes better to follow the exact proof that is followed in the text,backtrack and then see what all paths the author has used to prove something. This way the learning is more comprehensive than “somehow” proving the theorem.

Section IV- Feedback

Rule 23 Practice Using Feedback (Not Just Getting It)  : 
The authors quote Joshua Foer’s book “ Moonwalking with Einstein”, that says “People often arrive at an “OK Plateau,” a point at which they stop improving at something despite the fact that they continue to do it regularly. The secret to improving at a skill is to retain some degree of conscious control over it while practicing  is to force oneself to stay out of autopilot.” The process of intentionally implementing feedback is likely to keep people in a practice state of increased consciousness and thus steeper improvement. The Rule says that we all get feedback but few of us use it to improve themselves.

Rule 24 Apply First, Then Reflect :
Once you get a feedback, try to work on it asap, instead of discussing and debating about the feedback. The sequence that practice should generally follow is 1. Practice 2. Feedback 3. Do over (repractice using the feedback) 4. Possibly do this multiple times 5. Reflect. This is different from the sequence that most people are naturally inclined to follow: 1. Practice 2. Feedback 3. Reflect and discuss 4. Possibly do over

Rule 25 Shorten the Feedback Loop : 
Speed of consequence beats strength of consequence pretty much every time. Give feedback rightaway even if its imperfect.Remember that a simple and small change, implemented right away, can be more effective than a complex rewiring of a skill.

Section V – Culture of Practice

Rule 31 Normalize Error :

The book mentions a skier’s story to point out that importance of the attitude that we take toward failure. In this context, the book mentions Joshua Foer’s (Moonwalking with Einstein) illustration of the OK plateau

When first learning, we initially improve and improve until we ultimately reach a peak of accuracy and speed. Even though many of us spend countless hours typing in our professional and personal lives, however, we don’t continue to improve. Researchers discovered that when subjects were challenged to their limits by trying to type 10– 20 percent faster and were allowed to make mistakes, their speed improved. They made mistakes, fixed them, then encountered success.

The authors give specific examples of classroom situations where teachers use specific words and body language. They are relentless in ensuring that errors don’t go unaddressed and become more inscribed. They correct warmly and firmly. They prefer the rigor that self-corrections provide (as by having a student reread a challenging passage and fix her own mistake) but are direct when necessary (“ That word is pronounced ‘diagram’”).What is the relationship between the need to practice success and the need to normalize error? What you do in practice is practice succeeding. But when practice is well designed, you can also use it to isolate failure. This allows people to take calculated risks in order to improve at a particular skill. When failure happens in your organization, you want to have built a culture that embraces it. When you effectively normalize error, what starts with failure reliably ends in success. The process of encoding success is what makes failure safe.

Rule 32 Break Down the Barriers to Practice :

Practicing what we already know is sometimes boring to our mind that craves novelty. The chapter describes a few ways to overcome it

Rule 33 Make It Fun to Practice :
I think this is a very important aspect of practice. Unless you have this mindset, it is difficult to sustain practice for a long time.

Rule 37 Praise the Work Post-Practice :
Carol Dweck has studied the impact of praise on student achievement. Her work has demonstrated that when you praise children for a particular trait (for example, being smart) instead of a replicable action (for example, working diligently on a challenging set of math problems), students may actually underperform because they don’t see their achievement as being within their control. Praising traits leads students to believe either “I’m smart” or “I’m not,” whereas praising actions leads them to believe they can change their behavior to influence outcomes. We should learn from Dweck’s work when working with both children and adults in practice. Praise the actions that you want to see from your players, your children, or your employees, and these actions will multiply.

There are a ton of examples used in the book like,

  • Lionel Messi and his way of practicing that involves isolating a specific aspect of the game and just working on that aspect for hours together. Even if one does not understand the game, one can seek out the same kind of mindset in one’s work
  • Xavi Hernandez ,one of the top soccer midfielders in the world practices “rondos”, a specific soccer activity every single day. This example bluntly asks the reader , “Are you doing something every single day ?”. If not, may be you need to reevaluate your practice sessions.

Conclusion

The authors end the book with a section called “ The Monday Morning Test” . It talks about concrete actions and approaches that can be applied in an array of settings and that one can start using as early as Monday morning. In one of the scenarios, they reemphasize specific rules that suggest how one might use these rules as an individual in the quest for success in any endeavor.

Rule 17: Make Models Believable Seek Believable Models
As an individual you need to seek out believable models, people who are doing the same work you are doing, in a similar context. Don’t just go to the symphony to hear the greats perform; go behind the scenes and watch how they practice— the process by which they get better. You don’t have to live near a concert hall to be able to do this. YouTube is an amazing tool for practice. Use it to see how the greats practice.

Here’s a link mentioned in the book that emphasizes practicing slowly and practicing for about 5hrs max in a day.

Rule 23: [Seek and] Practice Using Feedback
Learn from Atul Gawande and seek out a coach. It doesn’t have to cost you anything. Ask someone, even a peer or colleague in your field, to be your “extra ear.” Practice using the feedback you receive from your coach. Don’t just nod your head in acceptance; immediately try out your coach’s suggestions to incorporate them into your practice.

Rule 4: Unlock Creativity
Identify those skills in your profession or hobby that are weak, thus preventing you from being more creative. Practice these skills again and again until they are committed to your muscle memory. This will allow you to free up more creative space and reach new heights, whether you are sitting at a piano, delivering a speech in a boardroom, or teaching math to 30 sixth-graders.

Rule 31: Normalize Error
Be willing to push yourself a little bit harder, out of your comfort zone, and take calculated risks in the name of improvement. Maybe that means practicing a difficult conversation that you never thought you could have with your boss about your career development, speaking with conviction and persuasion. Or perhaps it means practicing your violin solo with the metronome four ticks higher than you normally would. Push yourself to make mistakes in the name of improvement.

 

image_thumb2 Takeaway :

It should come as no surprise that most of the situations mentioned in the book are from a class room environment , as the authors run academic institutions.  Having said that, a persistent reader will find a few gems in the book that will help him/her in improving her practice, be it practicing an instrument, learning a new language , playing a game etc.

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