The Deliberate Practice Framework
Expertise is commonly attributed to talent. According to Ericsson and Charness (1994), Vasari first articulated this view in his book The Lives of the Artist (1568). Much later, Galton argued that exceptional performance emerges from a confluence of innate ability and motivation. More formally, this view asserts that practice is necessary to acquire expertise, but that asymptotic levels of performance are constrained by innate ability. The talent view has re-emerged in many forms. For example, in his popular theory of multiple intelligences, Gardner (1983) asserts that individuals are born with proclivities for processing certain types of information—musical, spatial, interpersonal, etc.
Ericsson and colleagues reject the talent view. There view is based on several observations. For example, skills of prodigies and savants seem to be acquired. For example, research suggests that absolute pitch—though to reflect musical talent—can be acquired by most people given that music instruction begins at a sufficiently young age. Also, savants in music are sensitive to certain conventions in music, suggesting that their skills are acquired. In addition, basic abilities are relatively weak predictors of performance after initial training. For example, IQ does not discriminate individuals within a domain. (They do acknowledge that there are between domain differences in IQ.) As a final example, physiological attributes may reflect adaptations to the demands of an activity. Based on what they perceive as a lack of evidence for genetic influences on the acquisition of expert performance, Ericsson et al. contend that "the traditional assumptions of basic abilities and capacities (talent) that may remain stable in studies of limited and short-term practice do not generalize to superior performance acquired over years and decades in a specific domain" (p. 731).
Tenets of the Deliberate Practice Framework
Within the framework, experts are defined as individuals who can consistently demonstrate superior performance on tasks designed to capture essential aspects of skill in the domain under investigation. To illustrate, in chess, a representative task is the choose-a-move task. This task captures what is essential to skill in chess—namely, choosing an appropriate move. This definition can be contrasted with a definition in which expertise is defined in terms of social status, peer recognition, or accumulated experience.
The central claim of the deliberate practice framework is that exceptional performance reflects extended periods of intense training and preparation. This idea is supported by historical changes in the complexity of domains. For example, what prior to the 20th century was considered the cutting edge of science is today taught to high school and college students. Research also shows that in most domains at least 10 years are acquired to attain expert levels of performance.
Ericsson et al. make a distinction between three types of domain-relevant experience: work, play, and deliberate practice. Only the latter activity provides optimal opportunities for performance improvement through feedback. In addition, unlike work and play, deliberate practice requires effort and does not lead to immediate reward. An example of deliberate practice in chess is studying games played by chess masters and predicting moves. The major prediction of the framework is summarized in the monotonic benefits assumption: "individuals’ performances are a monotonic function of the amount of deliberate practice accumulated since these individuals began deliberate practice in a domain" (p. 740). This assumption implies that starting age is important in determining the level of skill one will attain. That is, the individual who starts deliberate practice at age 5 and devotes 30 hours per week to deliberate practice will always perform at a higher level than the individual who devotes the same amount of time to deliberate practice but starts at age 10. Ericsson et al. found that "the total amount accumulated during development is several years of additional full-time practice more than that of other less accomplished performers" (p. 741).
A major challenge (and perhaps weakness) of the deliberate practice framework concerns methodologies for obtaining estimates of amount of engagement in deliberate practice. A diary methodology is one alternative, but reactive effects are an issue. Another approach is to ask subjects to estimate the amount of time they have engaged in deliberate practice since taking up the activity. The problem with this methodology is that long-term retrospective estimates may not be valid. The problems inherent in this methodology have been addressed in a number of ways. For example, Ericsson et al. compared retrospective estimates of deliberate practice by professional and expert, non-professional musicians and found that they were similar. Also, they showed that the relationship between age and accumulated amount of deliberate practice was described by the ubiquitous power function. However, this piece of evidence is not particularly convincing given that the performers would probably estimate that they engaged in a little bit more deliberate practice each year, regardless of whether they actually did.
The deliberate practice framework also makes predictions about age and expert performance. Particularly relevant is the observation that experts maintain high levels of performance after less accomplished performers begin to decline. Research shows that this advantage is restricted to domain-specific tasks. What accounts for this maintenance? "The maintenance of expert performance could be due to the unique structure of the mechanisms acquired in expert performance or to a level of deliberate practice maintained during adulthood or both" (p. 743). For example, physiological adaptations require sustained practice to maintain. Also, the mechanisms that govern expert performance may be easier to maintain than to acquire.
Comments and Questions
Ericsson et al. concede the following:
It is hard to imagine better empirical evidence on maximal performance except for one critical flaw. As children, future international-level performers are not randomly assigned to their training condition. Hence once cannot rule out the possibility that there is something different about those individuals who ultimately reach expert-level performance.
But they go on to point out that the evidence for the talent position is relatively weak. Nevertheless, it seems clear that there is good evidence to show that individual difference ability characteristics influence skill acquisition. For example, general intelligence is a good predictor of performance on novel tasks, at least in the initial phases of training. Perhaps Ericsson et al. would try to argue that intellectual abilities are, in fact, acquired skills, but how would they address the evidence showing that these abilities contain a substantial genetic component? And what is the evidence for the heritability of cognitive and noncognitive abilities? Interestingly, Ericsson et al. suggest that motivational factors, which may influence who is willing to engage in extended periods of deliberate practice, may be genetically influenced. This might be what we normally call talent. A review of evidence for and perspectives on deliberate practice is now provided.