Clark Quinn's Learnings about Learning
(The Official Quinnovation blog)

30 May 2017

Deliberate Practice

Clark @ 8:03 AM

A colleague pointed me to a intense critique of master’s programs in Instructional Design, and it raised several issues for me. So, I thought it’d be worth discussing.  The issue is that the program didn’t provide any practice in designing courses from go to whoa, it was all about theory. In the comments, many people talk about how the programs they went did include projects, but this raises issues around the role of programs as well as what practice means.

Is a master’s supposed to be about skill-building?  Is it job training?  In the original academic model, I’d argue that an advanced degree would be to augment your experience with some theory.  E.g. if you were an accountant, or an engineer, or even a designer, with experience under your belt, you’d go for a master’s to serve as reflection in developing the concepts you perform under.  You might (and should) apply them, but that’s not the focus.

David Merrill has made the case that there should be bachelor’s programs in ID, and I think this makes sense.  And maybe that’s where you’d actually get the hands-on experience designing courses.  Of course, the reality is that many master’s (and even bachelor’s degrees) have become vocational training. Which raises the second issue.

Then the question becomes: how much practice?  Indeed, if I need to develop a practical skill, I need to perform the skills.  And too much of education and training, just doesn’t do it.  The author talked about deliberate practice: where you focus on one element with a coach there to critique your performance.  It could be faked problems, or a real apprenticeship, but it’s a tight coupling between designed action and guided reflection (what instruction needs to be).

Look at performance where it matters: flight, warfare, medicine. You’re gradually scaffolded from simple practice to complex. Heck, if I want to learn fire-fighting, rather than a classroom and then one go at a burning building, I’d rather have a simple building, then gradually ramp up the complexity (victims, second stories, inflammables, …).  All with some instructor yelling at me when I screwed up!  Yes, there’d be content, with animations about how fire spreads, and some facts about smoke inhalation and the like, but the focus would be on performing.

And this holds true for job skills whether it’s vocational training or university (which is increasingly being expected to prepare people for jobs).  Accounting?  Analyze statements for biz problems, make recommendations for reallocation, etc. Quite a bit, that drives you to the content.

My take-home: if you have real practice, you need reflection. If you don’t, you need real practice first. Focused practice. Intense practice.  Scaling-up practice!  We need to get our ratios right.   If you’re needing skills, then make sure you’ve got good practice up front.


  1. This is sound and practical. I believe that theory before practice can be a paralizing agent. One can get so consumed by the philosophy of teaching that they lose sight of the work itself, or worse, forget how to do it at all. Best to be proficient in the doing, first.

    Comment by Angella — 15 June 2017 @ 5:00 PM

  2. I got my Masters from Roosevelt University in Chicago. The reason why I picked there (besides the fact that classes were less than a mile from where I worked)? Because it was the first program based on the then ASTD competency model. Not theory. Every course was graded on your project. And when you graduated? You had a portfolio.

    Comment by Tricia Ransom — 15 June 2017 @ 5:31 PM

  3. No theory? Tricia, I like it being based on a competency model, and assessed on what you produce, but what guides your performance? What basis is there for knowing what to produce and how? And how do you adapt to new situations? What’s the basis for transfer? I’d suggest that there is theory behind the competency model. Thanks for the story, very apt!

    Comment by Clark — 16 June 2017 @ 7:55 AM

  4. Angella, I like a problem-based pedagogy, practice providing the motivation to the theory. There is a role for theory, but it needs to be balanced with sufficient practice for it to be made actionable. Thanks for the comment!

    Comment by Clark — 16 June 2017 @ 7:56 AM

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