Assessment, Teaching

It’s Not Magic! Research on Developing Expertise

I once overheard someone say to a jazz musician, “Your playing is magic!” The musician retorted, “It’s not magic! It’s at least six hours of practice every single day for the last 20 years.” At a recent function I attended, someone asked the pediatric plastic surgeon sitting next to me whether incredible eye-hand coordination made him choose his specialization. His response: “Actually my cutting skills were always rather weak, but I just put in more time on it and then caught up with my peers.”

In the past two decades, a large body of research has examined the differences between novices and experts in subject areas ranging from physics[1] to poetry.[2] Yet research on developing expertise has found no “magic bullet” in becoming an expert and has concluded that innate talent plays a less prominent role than previously imagined. Furthermore, evidence from studies in the brain sciences, as well as research on student motivation, appear to reinforce the findings on developing expertise.

The Role of “Deliberate Practice”

Various studies on developing expertise suggest that the most important factors are a willingness to put in huge amounts of deliberate practice and the ability to maintain this effort when confronting obstacles.[3] Deliberate practice involves four key components: focused goals – often determined by a teacher in order to improve a specific aspect of performance; concentration and effort; feedback from a teacher comparing actual to desired performance; and further opportunities for practice. When K. Anders Ericsson asked expert violinists at an internationally acclaimed music academy in Berlin to report time spent in deliberate practice, he found that the best expert violinists reported more time per week, as well as more time through their lifetime (the now-popularized 10,000 hours), while the good expert violinists reported only 7,500 hours, and the least accomplished experts estimated only 5,000 hours. It is important however, that when these violinists were asked to keep a weekly diary they all reported spending about the same amount of time on music-related activities. So mere time-on-task, which includes routine performance and playful engagement, is very different from what Ericsson called “deliberate practice”.[4]

A crucial point in this research is that, to achieve success, developing experts accept challenges and persevere in the face of obstacles. In the area of athletics, for instance, elite skaters are more likely to fall than recreational skaters because they challenge themselves to the next level, rather than simply doing more of what they already can do well. This is just as applicable in the classroom situation in the development of, for instance, higher-order skills in mathematics or advanced writing skills.[5]

In order to maintain their self-confidence when encountering obstacles, students need to have a firm belief that they can indeed overcome such challenges if they persist.

In order to maintain their self-confidence when encountering obstacles, students need to have a firm belief that they can indeed overcome such challenges if they persist. Similarly, teachers need to believe that, given enough time, quality instruction, and effort on the part of both themselves and their students, most students can become competent regardless of the innate ability that they initially bring to the task, which serves as the mere starting point in learning. Thus both teachers and students need to have a sense of self-efficacy – that is, a belief that they are capable of meeting the challenge.

The focus on deliberate practice is not to suggest that innate ability plays only a minimal role. All individuals will pick up some skills far more easily and effortlessly than other skills, and some individuals will pick up most skills more easily than other individuals. However, a motivated student, assisted by a caring, observant coach or teacher, will engage in effort precisely where difficulty is being experienced. Through extra time and deliberate practice, the skill develops.

The Expert Brain

Those of us who have taken – or taught – undergraduate Psychology, know that there are frequent allusions to the “nature versus nurture” or “innate versus environmental” debate. Brain development used to be seen as the product of genetically determined maturation, and the structural development of the brain was assumed to facilitate the functional development displayed in our behaviour. No longer. Research from the field of neuroscience challenges this unidirectional construct, for brain development has been shown to involve a continuous interaction between nature and nurture.

This evidence provides support for the importance of deliberate practice. For instance, when scientists compared the brains of vision-impaired individuals who read Braille with the brains of those who did not read Braille, the brain area related to the right index finger of Braille readers was larger than that of non-Braille readers.[6] Similarly, for musicians who play string instruments, the brain areas for the digits of the left hand were larger than for the right hand – and larger than the same area in individuals who did not play a string instrument.

Indeed, the brain of the musician can be seen as an exciting model of neuroplasticity: Musical training and practice not only change the structure of the brain but also produce functional changes in the brain. For instance, when pianists hear piano notes, they show greater neural activity in the auditory cortex than do non-musicians, and the amount of that increase is related to both the number of years they have played piano and the age at which they started training. This increased activity, then, does not merely reflect innate differences between musicians and non-musicians but also the effect of practice.[7]

Further confirmation of training-induced brain plasticity comes from two recent longitudinal studies in which children were randomly assigned to either musical training or not. After six months of musical training, 8-year-olds showed enhanced brain response to subtle changes in pitch[8] and after 15 months of music training a younger group displayed structural changes in the auditory and motor areas of the brain.[9]

It appears that specific kinds of practice can change not only the structure of the brain but also how it functions.

Of particular interest to educators, Dr. Guinevere Eden and her team at Georgetown University provided intensive training in word sounds and word parts to dyslexic readers.[10] After eight weeks, not only did the dyslexic readers improve their reading but their brain scans also showed changes in how their brains functioned. There was an increase both in task-related activity in those left hemisphere areas of the brain that are usually engaged by typical readers, and in compensatory activity in areas of the brain that are not usually activated in typical readers. It appears that specific kinds of practice can change not only the structure of the brain but also how it functions.

Try, Try Again

Should we praise students to assure them that they are smart (“You’re very intelligent” or “very smart at this?”)? When this question was asked of parents, 85 percent answered in the affirmative.[11] Yet, Carol Dweck, a motivation researcher, noticed that children who have maladaptive achievement patterns were already overly-concerned about their intelligence, worrying that any task failure meant they were “dumb”. In a series of studies, Dweck and her colleagues set about investigating whether children should be praised for their intelligence (or innate ability), or for their effort.[12]

Children in Grade 5, tested individually, were given a set of problems that were reasonably challenging but easy enough for all of them to perform quite well. After this first problem set, all children were then told they had performed well. For some of the children this was followed by praise for their effort (“You must have worked hard at these problems”); for others, by praise for their ability or intelligence, (“You must be smart at these problems”).

In a few of the studies, both of these groups were then asked whether they would prefer to work on a challenging task (“problems that I’ll learn a lot from, even if I won’t look so smart”) or an easy task (“problems that are pretty easy so I’ll do well”). Of the children praised for their effort after the initial problem set, 92 percent stated their preference for the more challenging task, compared with only 33 percent of the children praised for their intelligence. These children’s stated preference was for the easier task that would allow them to keep looking smart but not to learn very much.

Children were then given a problem set that was more difficult than the first and on which all children experienced some failures. When asked to rate the tasks, only those who had been praised for effort preferred the more difficult tasks even though they had missed some of the problems. They also were more eager to take them home to practice.

In the final test, students worked on a third set of problems of equal difficulty to the first set, on which both groups had performed equally well. The group praised for their intelligence performed significantly worse than they had at the beginning, while the group praised for effort performed significantly better. This suggests that praise for being “smart at these problems” does not equip children well to deal with failures. The two groups of students, who had been the same at the beginning, were now far apart.

These results were confirmed in the next few studies, in one of which students were asked to “confidentially” report their score to an unfamiliar Grade 5 student at another school. Nearly 40 percent of participants who had been praised for their ability lied about their score as compared to 13 percent of the group who had been praised for their effort.

This research suggests the power of explicitly attributing student success to hard work rather than innate ability. An emphasis on effort fosters an optimistic, incremental theory of motivation in which success is seen as developing step by step, through effort. As distinct from a focus on innate ability – which is fixed and uncontrollable – an incremental view is empowering for both teachers and students – with an important caveat. This does not mean saying, “Good effort” or ‘Good try’ in response to a poor performance (“At least you tried”). The appropriate message is rather, “Good performance because of your good effort.”

What does this look like in the classroom? My students recently reflected on how they applied these research findings in their final practicum. One thoughtful student described how he first examined his own beliefs about effort and ability and then modeled behaviour for the students, saying for example, “This part of the text is really confusing to me. Let me press on but if it isn’t clarified I’ll come back and spend extra time on this difficult part.” Rather than global uninformative comments like “Well done” or “Good,” he provided specific and substantive feedback that explicitly attributed success to effort (“I saw that you went back and checked all your problems. I think this careful work is reflected in your grade”) and encouraged persistence in surmounting obstacles (“You seemed to be stuck at one stage but I noticed that you kept trying and now you have the solution”).

When target achievement had been reached, he used feedback to set a new sub-goal. For example, “Your arguments show that you have worked hard to understand the text. Now Anna, you need to work on organizing these arguments.” And later: “Your papers are now well organized. The next step is to make the transitions between your paragraphs reader-considerate. You need to work on providing a link between the idea in a new paragraph and the previous one.”

Another student teacher focused on helping her students see that perseverance usually results in high performance. She chose examples from students’ own lives to concretely illustrate deliberate practice and perseverance in the face of challenge. For instance, she had her students consider the time and effort required and the obstacles they overcame when they learned how to skateboard.


If developing expertise or competence is highly dependent on deliberate practice, and if experience causes changes in the structure and function of the brain, then a crucial role for teachers is to help foster children’s motivation to put in the required effort. Converging evidence from research on motivation suggests that praising children for their hard work rather than their intelligence increases motivation and results in children valuing challenge and becoming better equipped to confront failure.

Most important is that this convergent research from the domains of expertise, neuroscience, and motivation empowers teachers by engendering the optimistic view that most of their students can learn well if they put in the hard work and persevere in the face of obstacles. Effort can create ability. As Einstein commented, “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.”

EN BREF – Au cours des deux dernières décennies, de nombreuses recherches ont examiné les différences entre les novices et les experts dans des domaines allant de la physique à la poésie. Toutefois, la recherche sur l’acquisition de compétences n’a relevé aucun secret pour devenir expert, concluant que le talent inné joue un rôle moins important qu’on le croyait auparavant. D’après différentes études sur le sujet, les facteurs les plus importants sont la volonté de consacrer des efforts considérables à la pratique délibérée et la capacité de maintenir ces efforts malgré les obstacles. De plus, les preuves semblent indiquer que la persévérance et la pratique délibérée changent la structure et la fonction du cerveau. Les recherches convergentes sur les compétences, la neuroscience et la motivation habilitent les enseignantes et les enseignants en engendrant l’attitude optimiste que la plupart de leurs élèves peuvent bien apprendre s’ils travaillent fort et persévèrent devant les obstacles. L’effort peut engendrer l’habileté.

[1] A. G. Priest and R. O. Lindsay, “New Light on Novice-expert Differences in Physics Problem Solving,” British Journal of Psychology 83, no. 3 (1996): 389-405.

[2] J. Peskin, “Constructing Meaning when Reading Poetry: An Expert-Novice Study,” Cognition and Instruction 16, no. 3 (1998): 235-263.

[3] K. Ericsson, “The Influence of Experience and Deliberate Practice on the Development of Superior Expert Performance. In The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, eds. K. A. Ericsson, N. Charness, P. J. Feltovich, and R. R. Hoffman (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 683-704.

[4] Ibid.

[5] R. T. Kellog and A. P. Whiteford, “Training Advanced Writing Skills: The Case for Deliberate Practice,” Educational Psychologist 44, no. 4 (2009): 250-266.

[6] See T. Rohrer, “Image Schemata in the Brain,” in From Perception to Meaning: Images Schemas in Cognitive Linguistics, eds. B. Hampe and J. Grady (Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 2005), 165-196.

[7] Nina Kraus and Bharat Chandrasekaran, “Music Training for the Development of Auditory Skills,” Nature Reviews/Neuroscience 11 (2010): 599-605.

[8] Moreno Silvain et al., “Musical Training Influences Linguistic Abilities in 8-year-old Children: More Evidence for Brain Plasticity,” Cerebral Cortex 19 (2009): 712-723.

[9] Krista Hyde et al., “Musical Training Shapes Structural Brain Development,” The Journal of Neuroscience 29, no. 10 (2009): 3010-3025.

[10] Guinevere Eden et al., “Neural Changes Following Remediation in Adult Developmental Dyslexia,” Neuron 44 (2004): 411- 422.

[11] C. S. Dweck, “Caution – Praise Can Be Dangerous,” American Educator (Spring 1999): 4-9.

[12] C. M. Mueller and C. S, Dweck,“Praise for Intelligence can Undermine Children’s Motivation and Performance,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 75, no, 1 (1998): 33-52.

Meet the Expert(s)

Joan Peskin

Joan Peskin, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. She has published widely in the areas of expertise, cognitive development, and the empirical study of literature.

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