Grit vs Flow – what’s better for learning?
Having just put up a new classroom display exhorting the benefits of ‘flow’ and using the idea in training materials, I have just had this thrust in front of my slack jawed face by my new bête noire, Alex Quigley! (NB: this is not true – Alex is a thoroughly decent chap, and a man I admire greatly.)
I’ve been fascinated by the idea of ‘flow’ since reading Mihály Csíkszentmihályi‘s book some years ago. The idea is that if you’re totally immersed in the experience of performing a task you will perform it to a higher standard. It’s has been billed as “the ultimate experience in harnessing the emotions in the service of performing and learning.” Who wouldn’t want to feel “a feeling of spontaneous joy, even rapture, while performing a task”? Sounds good, right? Maybe too good.
With arch educational myth buster, Tom Bennett’s warning against being an ideas magpie rattling round in my poor over burdened brain, the sense of wounded pride at being so easily gulled is an almost physical thing. I should have known better. As he says, “75% of the educational research … seems to believe that science, like Adam, sprung ex nihilo, and can be invented in a day.”
Cal Newport’s rather wonderful blog Study Hacks sets out the following very interesting advice for budding concert pianists to counter the feel good molasses that is flow:
Avoid Flow. Do What Does Not Come Easy.
“The mistake most weak pianists make is playing, not practicing. If you walk into a music hall at a local university, you’ll hear people ‘playing’ by running through their pieces. This is a huge mistake. Strong pianists drill the most difficult parts of their music, rarely, if ever playing through their pieces in entirety.”
To Master a Skill, Master Something Harder.
“Strong pianists find clever ways to ‘complicate’ the difficult parts of their music. If we have problem playing something with clarity, we complicate by playing the passage with alternating accent patterns. If we have problems with speed, we confound the rhythms.”
Systematically Eliminate Weakness.
“Strong pianists know our weaknesses and use them to create strength. I have sharp ears, but I am not as in touch with the physical component of piano playing. So, I practice on a mute keyboard.”
Create Beauty, Don’t Avoid Ugliness.
“Weak pianists make music a reactive task, not a creative task. They start, and react to their performance, fixing problems as they go along. Strong pianists, on the other hand, have an image of what a perfect performance should be like that includes all of the relevant senses. Before we sit down, we know what the piece needs to feel, sound, and even look like in excruciating detail. In performance, weak pianists try to reactively move away from mistakes, while strong pianists move towards a perfect mental image.”
And this advice seems equally pertinent for teachers as well as our students. I love the idea that practice should seek to ‘create beauty’. And as me old ma always said, you ‘ave to suffer to be bootiful!
I made this point in a post on deliberate practice last year:
Hattie says in Visible Learning for Teachers, “Sometimes learning is not fun. Instead, it is just hard work; it is deliberate practice; it is simply doing some things many times over.”
This idea has been knocking around for quite a while. Way back in 1898 Bryan & Harter were apparently telling us that it takes 10 years to become an expert in whatever field you choose to pursue. This was picked up more recently by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers and has since become something of an industry with books like Bounce and The Talent Code dominating best seller lists. The current thinking is that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to achieve mastery of anything. It’s worth noting here that practice does not mean rote learning or repetitive ‘skill and drill’.
Guess what? Turns out Gladwell’s 10,000 hours rule is guff too. But, fortunately (else my self-respect might be entirely shredded) Erikson’s theory of deliberate practice still appears to hold up. Just to recap, deliberate practice is intentional, aimed at improving performance, pitched just beyond your current skill level, combined with immediate feedback and repetitious. When these conditions are met, practice improves accuracy and speed of performance on cognitive, perceptual, and motor tasks.
Angela Duckworth (no relation to Vera) has looked at deliberate practice in relation to success at Spelling Bees and explored the concept of ‘grit’. She reports that,
With each year of additional preparation, spellers devoted an increasing proportion of their preparation time to deliberate practice, despite rating the experience of such activities as more effortful and less enjoyable than the alternative preparation activities. Grittier spellers engaged in deliberate practice more so than their less gritty counterparts, and hours of deliberate practice fully mediated the prospective association between grit and spelling performance. Contrary to our prediction, we did not find evidence that the inverse association between the trait of openness to experience and spelling performance was mediated by any of the three preparation activities measured in this study.
So what can we learn from all this?
Well, firstly, there’s no substitute for hard work. And, perhaps, without that feeling that what you’re doing is actually a bit of a slog you won’t ever achieve real mastery. And secondly, sometimes the hard work is checking your facts. Mea culpa. I’m not yet sure whether ‘flow’ is completely blown out of the water as a state to aspire to; possibly this might come down to the difference between learning and performance. Flow looks great, but grit results in learning; flow is the end, and grit is the means.
Is this a false dichotomy? Maybe. But I still have to rethink my display, and my presentation for TLA Berkhamsted!
With the help of Roo Stenning (see comment below) and Pete Jones (on graphic design) we have arrived at a Grand Unified Theory of the Grit/Flow cycle:
And for an even more coherent explanation of deliberate practice as it relates to teacher development, read this wonderful post from Alex Quigley