Conscious Learning: How anyone can become an expert

How do some people achieve peak performance? How are such phenomenal performances possible that inspire us all? Is it talent, or is it training? This is precisely the question that Swedish psychologist K. Anders Ericsson has addressed. His astonishing answer: with the right training method, anyone can achieve top performance. It is not talent that is decisive, but the type of training. To this end, he studied experts from various fields and derived repetitive patterns. He calls this method ‘conscious learning’. The following is a first insight into this learning method.


The myth of the 10,000 hours rule

However, before we look at how to train, let’s examine the importance of training quantity. Is training as much as possible really useful and crucial for development?
The myth of the 10,000 hour rule persists. This rule comes from Malcolm Gladwell. In most fields, Gladwell says, it takes 10,000 hours to reach peak performance. This rule is fascinating, of course. It is simple to understand and easy to remember. The complexity of training is reduced to one criterion: that of the number of hours of practice.

Ericsson contradicts this thesis. In his research, the number 10,000 also occurs, but it is only the number of hours of practice that a top violinist has accumulated by the age of 20. However, this value is arbitrarily chosen, one could also take the value after the age of 18, but that would not have been such a memorable number (7600 hours). In addition, very few violinists already achieve top performances at the age of 20. Violinists do not reach their peak performance until they are about 30 years old, i.e., with significantly more hours of practice.

However, the biggest problem with the 10,000 hour rule is that many people deduce from it that anyone can become an expert in his or her field by practicing for only 10,000 hours. However, this does not correspond to Gladwell’s views and could not be confirmed in Ericsson’s research.

Despite everything, there is a great deal of truth in this rule: to achieve performance excellence, a very high number of hours of practice must be performed. There is no shortcut to success. Even so-called natural talents do not stand out because of less or hardly any training, but because of numerous hours of training. However, focusing on quantity alone is not enough. 

“Plasticity”: The brain is changeable!

Now comes an important message for all of us: our brain is malleable, is changeable! We can train our brain just as we can train our muscles.
This realization is relatively new. For a long time, it was assumed that learning something new was limited to strengthening or weakening neural connections. Today, we know when, the brain can change and grow. In physical training, we are aware of this adaptability. If we train enough and intensively, the body will adapt and change externally. When we train running, we notice the shortened recovery time and improved endurance. But because we can’t see a “six-pack” in the brain or feel sore muscles, we tend to forget the fact that the brain can change in the same way.

So our abilities are not predetermined by nature, but we can learn any ability. To do this, we only need to know how exactly we can expand our cognitive capacities.

For example, it used to be assumed that absolute pitch, the ability to determine a note just by hearing it, was an innate ability. Only a few talented people are lucky enough to have this gift. The psychologist Ayako Sakakibara conducted an experiment with 24 children in which he tried to teach them to recognize sounds in a course that lasted for months. In the end, all the children had absolute hearing. Considering that otherwise only 1 person in 10,000 develops this ability, this is a very remarkable result, and challenges the traditional view of talent.

Mental Representations as the Secret of Conscious Learning

Now that we know that our brain structure is changeable, here is the next important concept. The goal of conscious learning is to build effective mental representations. You can think of this as having a certain area in the brain for each skill, better said a map. If a skill is still new, the map is still not very detailed and not very organized. The better the ability develops, the more details are stored in this map and the better one can navigate in this map. Ericsson explains it with the example of the Mona Lisa. When hearing the word Mona Lisa, an image of the painting appears in the mind’s eye of almost everyone. This is the mental representation of the Mona Lisa. The more accurately you can describe the painting, the more pronounced the mental representation.
Another example: when you read a technical book about a new subject for the first time, you will learn a lot of new things, but you will also not understand a lot of information because you cannot yet assign it on your mental map. You will also forget most of what you read because the number of connections in your brain is still very small. It is different when you read a technical book in a field in which you know a lot. You will pick out information that beginners will overlook. You can separate important from unimportant information much better. To stay with the metaphor of the map, you can easily relate the information you read to specific places on the map and know how they are connected. So you can store new information much better and know later where exactly you have stored this information.
But how exactly can we build and improve mental representations?

Learning outside the comfort zone

The brain structure changes in the long run only when the brain is “forced” to adapt. So conscious learning must always take place outside the comfort zone. If this does not happen, no adaptation takes place. If, for example, you only ever lift the weights in the gym that you can easily manage, no physically visible adaptation takes place. It is the same with mental representations.
Thomas Tuchel has also recognized this and says: “Give them [the players] difficulties. For me, the talent criterion ‘overcoming difficulties’ is now the all-important one.” 

Concrete objectives

First, a major objective is chosen that is formulated in concrete terms. From this, intermediate goals are derived that make the learning progress systematic and verifiable. Only the goals show the way and the associated effort and keeps the motivation high. It also makes exercise techniques verifiable. If an exercise technique is no longer sufficient to achieve the next goal, other possibilities must be tested out. Continuous optimization of training methods is therefore a crucial building block. Of course, the older a field is, the more tested the learning methods are.

Full attention 

Training must not be an end in itself, but requires full attention. The learner must know why he is training and what goal the respective exercise is aimed at. Only then can he check the effectiveness and make changes. 

Feedback

Constant feedback is a crucial component of Conscious Learning. If the feedback initially comes from the trainer, the student should gradually learn to monitor and correct his or her own learning progress. This ability requires mental representations on the one hand, but in turn improves with increasingly effective mental representations. 

Here is a small excerpt from his book ‘Top – The Science of Learning’:
“Conscious learning both generates mental representations and depends on them. There is an interaction between increases in performance and increases in the quality of mental representations. As performance improves, mental representations become more detailed and effective, allowing further improvement in performance. Mental representations enable a person to monitor himself both when practicing or training and when performing in public. They show him how to do something correctly and enable him to notice mistakes and correct them.”

Conclusion

K. Anders Ericssons’ method is wonderful news for everyone. Because it’s not innate talent that matters. With enough time and the right learning method, anyone can learn any skill. 
That this view is not widespread is not surprising, since the media constantly talk about supposed natural talent. Of athletes who supposedly have been given the gift of playing soccer or basketball. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart? Child prodigy. Lionel Messi? Child prodigy. But it wasn’t special genes or luck that determined success. It is a certain number of hours of practice, but also the learning method.  It’s not for nothing that even Lionel Messi, who is often seen as the soccer prodigy par excellence, says:

“It took me 17 years and 114 days to become an overnight success”.
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