Improving skilled performance

What can ordinary experience tell us about how skilled practitioners can be brought to a high level of competence and performance?

Let’s say we are interested in teaching a child to play the violin at an advanced level, beginning at the novice level. The outcome we want to influence is the child’s ability to play competently. This requires developing an ensemble of capabilities, both cognitive and motor, in virtue of which the child Is able to handle the bow and the instrument, interpret and perform the printed score, and give the performance appealing emotion. How does that process work?

In its essentials the violin coach works with a set of rules of thumb: demonstrate bow technique, motivate the child to emulate and practice, offer corrective feedback to which the child attempts to respond; more practice, more coaching, more performance.

This is a simple process for an individual child and a coach, for several important reasons. The performance and its defects are visible. The sound from the string is squeaky? Hold the bow less tightly and concentrate on a straight stroke across the string. Further, the necessary component skills are largely independent from one another. So the coach can concentrate on the bow stroke for several lessons without worrying that the new proficiency with the bow will interfere with the fingerboard or the sight reading.

Moreover, neither child nor coach needs to be a cognitive psychologist or a physicist. It isn’t necessary to have a theory of the underlying cognitive processes or the physics of the violin in order to help the pupil improve. Playing the violin capably isn’t easy, but it is largely incremental and separable into progress in the several component skills.

Now consider a moderately more complex example of expertise, becoming a good writer. Here the problem for the coach is somewhat more difficult. The quality of the performance itself is no longer entirely visible. The coach has to make some interpretive judgments about the student’s efforts. The skills are not so discrete, allowing coach and learner to workbook them separately. And crucially, the skills are not so independent from one another. Enhancing logical narrative skills may detract from the skills associated with poetic expression or emotional directness. So a coaching strategy that focuses on skills A, B, and C may succeed in improvement of the components but lead to a degradation of performance overall.

Now consider a highly complex and non-transparent performance — becoming an excellent test pilot, let us say. An excellent pilot requires a high level of excellence in a wide range of skills, including both motor skills and intellectual skills. So how should a coach approach the problem of transforming the 18 year old into an excellent pilot? A major part of the answer is that we have now exceeded the capacity of individual coaching. The pilot needs a whole curriculum of training, in which coaching plays an occasional role. Significantly, it may be the case that coaching is most pertinent for pilots at the high end of expertise, to help them go from capable to exceptional. But the question of enhancing performance shifts from the techniques and rules of thumb used by individual coaches, to the components and pedagogy of the flight training curriculum.

I find this an interesting topic because it focuses attention on one of the fundamental features of human capacity — our ability to become highly skilled at various challenging tasks — and asks how this process unfolds. What is it about the pupil’s cognitive and motor potential that makes it possible for him or her to gain skill? And what features of coaching and training help to cultivate this potential?

But second, I find the topic interesting because of how distant it seems to be from a traditional university curriculum. Universities organize the learning process around formal courses and the mastery of content. A large part of skill cultivation, however, seems to require a more practical engagement with a coach or a teacher who encourages, corrects, and demonstrates.

(Here is an interesting bit of physics on why the violin is difficult; link.)

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