A recent issue of Outside magazine recounts Charles Bethea’s attempt to run a sub-five-minute mile. At age 35 and fit, though not an elite athlete, Bethea’s goal is far short of the world record of 3:43. And although many runners break the five-minute barrier, it’s still a feat well beyond the vast majority of adults. After a respectable benchmark mile of 6:19, Bethea flounders aimlessly. A former college runner advises him to aim for quarter-mile splits of 74 seconds, which Bethea learns he can do, one at a time and with rest in between. But he can’t figure out how to string the four fast intervals together. It’s not until he gets coaching from a world-class miler that Bethea realistically approaches his goal. He quickly learns two things: first, he needs to ramp up his weekly mileage dramatically, and second, he must vary his training to include a prescribed mix of slow runs, hill intervals, and sprints. The road ahead isn’t going to be easy.
Bethea’s progression from mindless, ineffective training to purposeful, measured workouts serves as an entry point to Anders Ericsson’s recent book, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise (2016). A professor of psychology at Florida State who has studied experts for much of his career, Ericsson offers fascinating insights applicable to college-level teaching and learning. Although most of our students won’t go on to become experts in our fields, we often aspire to instill the practices and habits of mind which undergird our domains. The question is, how do we do that effectively?
Like Bethea’s initial efforts, most of us, argues Ericsson, go about improving ourselves in ineffective ways. Want to be an elite chess player? Play lots and lots of chess. No less a visionary than Ben Franklin took that route, but he failed miserably in his pursuit of excellence. Why? Because getting better in chess requires not playing more, but carefully studying the matches of chess masters, systematically building up a huge database of positions and possible moves, and having that knowledge stored for ready use in long-term memory. Lacking access to the games of the European chess champions of his day, Franklin never developed the deep understanding of chess he so desired.