Posts Tagged ‘okay plateau’

There’s an aspect of learning that I’ve been thinking about a lot as I attempt to reboot my own ability to learn.  I haven’t written about this yet though.  Not because it isn’t important.  In fact, I think it may be even more fundamental in some ways that the deliberate practice, the okay plateau, flow, and other concepts that I have spent some time one.  It’s also not new to me, I’ve worked with this concept for years as I coached younger engineers and butted my head against it in some unfortunate cases when managing more senior engineers.

The problem is I’ve never really had an easy way to talk about this concept.  It’s come up in a number of books that I’ve read about Talent and learning, but hasn’t been nearly as heavily referenced as either Ericcson’s 10,000 hours of deliberate practice or Csikszentmihalyi‘s Flow (P.S.) concepts.

So I was talking to my mom about this volunteer teaching gig that I’m training for and I mentioned the textbook that they’ve assigned (The First Days of School by Wong & Wong).  Her response was that she found the Wong’s stuff useful, but that I should really take a look at the work that Dr. Carol Dweck has done.  To which I said, “Dweck, that name sounds familiar” and immediately did a search of my notes to see that her name was languishing in my depressingly long list of “further research required”.  It turns out that she published a normal person consumable summation of her work as the book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, which I promptly read.

So this concept that I’ve been trying to label as inborn talent vs. willingness to work hard or innate ability vs. stubbornness or any number of other kind of things finally has a nice clean label.  Okay, it’s had that label for quite some time, but now I have something to call it.

Here’s a quote from a 2012 interview of Dweck that sums up her definition of mindset:

In a fixed mindset students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that’s that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb. In a growth mindset students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don’t necessarily think everyone’s the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it.

One of the over-arching themes of the book is that people tend to have one mindset or the other and she goes into considerable depth about well-known athletes and business leaders that operate with a fixed mindset vs. a growth mindset.  And of course if you buy into the premise that a growth mindset is a healthier way to live and learn in general, then a decent part of the book is somewhat redundant.  But she does spend some time on how to put yourself into a growth mindset and how to use praise to put students into a growth mindset.

One of the really cool things that I think even Dweck understates in her book is that this mindset can change from task to task.  Most of the research that she quotes is done on a random set of people (they don’t try to group people by some general tendency towards a particular mindset) and they use some introductory statement to put one group into a fixed mindset and the other into a growth mindset.  One group will hear something like “This is a skill that only some people are good at, we’re giving you a test to see if you’re one of them” and the other group will get “Everyone can do this, we’re just observing some semi-related aspect of the exercise.”  The group that got the latter explanation will do measurable better than the group that got the first.  On a very wide variety of tasks.   So even if you (like me) have a bit more built in fixed mindset that you’d like to admit, you can chip away at this one step at a time.

And all this is made more important and relevant in my current endeavors because I will be teaching computer science to high school students.   When I decided to do this my biggest hesitation was exactly around the mindset issue, although I didn’t yet have that term.  Even though I’ve been struggling with it for years, I did somehow manage to slip into a predominantly fixed mindset learning mode of learning in my formative years.  This is especially ironic since (in case you missed it), it was my Mom that turned me on to Dweck’s work.  But one thing that fell very naturally into a growth mindset for me and I think is one of the reasons that I became undeniably good at it, was programming.  I believe that this was in large part because nobody around me knew how to program. So there was no one to judge how well I was doing (either in a positive or negative way) and put me in a fixed mindset.  I just plugged away at it until I could do more and more things, slipping into that crazy overlap between deliberate practice and flow that is quite possibly the reason for being.

So if the very lack of formal teaching in computer science is what got me into a place where I was able to excel as a programmer, what business do I have trying to teach that very skill?  I hope that the answer to that is to learn how to guide my students in a way that lets them achieve that same feeling of unlimited potential that I had as a teenager discovering the wonders of computers.  And I think that Dweck’s mindset concept will be a key part of how I do that.  Thanks for that, Mom.  As well as all of the amazing things you’ve taught me over the years.

I just finished reading (actually listening to) the book Moonwalking with Einstein.  It’s a description of how the author gets involved in the U.S. Memory Championship and goes into great detail about how he studied to compete in the championship as well as many entertaining stories about the personalities of the current people on the world memory scene and the history of memory techniques.  I highly recommend the book and I’m trying to decide whether or not he convinced me to spend time working on specific techniques to enhance my memory.  I’ll get back to you when I figure that out.

The thing that stuck with me the most though was Mr. Foer’s description of what he calls the Okay Plateau.  The general idea is that for most skills, you learn rapidly for some period of time and once you’re good enough you don’t get any better.  His main example is typing – many people ‘practice’ typing for longer each day than I’m spending on most of the skills I’m currently trying to master.   Yet they aren’t any better than they were shortly after they learned to type.

Now I don’t know that I’m going to add typing to my list of things to improve.  Especially because once I started talking to friends about it the suggestion came up that I learn the Dvorak keyboard rather than trying to incrementally improve my QWERTY skills.  Which is interesting enough that I’ll have to do some further research to decide which way to go, if any.  And also probably a comment on how off the wall my friends can sometimes be, that’s what keeps life interesting, right?

Since I am actively working towards acquiring a number of new skills this year and improving some old ones, I am very interested in avoiding the okay plateau.   By my reading, the idea is that once you learn a skill sufficiently to meet your needs, you start ‘practicing’ in in an automatic way that requires less concentration but that also precludes much improvement.  The suggested methods for breaking out of this ‘Autonomous’ mode are to do three things.

  1. Spend more time practicing outside of your comfort zone.  An example is that the best figure skaters spend more time practicing the jumps that they can’t land while mediocre figure skaters practice the jumps that they can.
  2. Make sure that you are practicing in a way that you can get immediate feedback.
  3. Act like a scientist – examine what you’re doing and how you’re learning and try to figure out what you’re doing that is good and what you’re doing that is sub-optimal.  Of course, I still maintain that doing to much of this while actually practicing can lead to issues.

I think the above are all things that are worth considering while learning a new skill.  But here’s another thought on breaking out autonomous mode.  I think that changing between depth first and breadth first learning could shake one off the okay plateau.  My canonical example of this is my experience with yoga.  I spent a number of years practicing the standard bikram series of poses and while I think my learning curve didn’t necessarily plateau at a zero degree angle, it had settled into a very gentle slope.   For reasons not directly related to trying to improve my Bikram practice I ended up practicing a very different kind of yoga and lo and behold I started seeing breakthroughs in bikram poses that I hadn’t improved in months or even years, even though I was spending considerably less time on a weekly basis doing those poses.

I’m hoping that doing things like learning some music theory, ear training and singing while tackling the piano will help keep me from even entering the okay plateau of music.   Now I need to decide if I’ve got enough breadth in some of my other endeavors.

I am also struggling with the relationship between these principles and the concept of flow, as I feel like there is a contradiction between these two ideas that I can’t quite reconcile.