Deep Practice: The Vital Edge in Math Achievement

A Seven-Part Series | Part One

by Robert Sun

Daniel Coyle’s book, The Talent Code, was considered groundbreaking in many circles because it provided strong insight into how, and why, “talent” can be acquired by virtually anyone. Most of us assume that talent is something people are born with. Coyle showed that under the right conditions, virtually anyone can become highly accomplished in a complex skill, to the point that people assume the individual is “naturally gifted.”

One of the most indispensable elements in skills mastery, Coyle discovered, was the idea of Deep Practice. This state occurs when the person is fully engaged in the task at hand; willing and able to not only spend extended time in practice, but also concentrate intensely and trust in the process.

During Deep Practice, neurological changes occur in the brain. Neural networks, pathways that allow the electrical signals fired by neurons to travel quickly from one area of the brain to another, are what enable people to execute any skill, from hitting a golf ball to playing a piano concerto. Every time an electrical signal travels along a nerve fiber to other neurons, the body adds to a sheath of myelin around that fiber. Like insulation around a wire, myelin protects and enhances the fiber. Researchers have found that myelin increases the signal strength transmitted along nerve fibers by a factor of 20, and increases the speed by more than 100. Instead of communicating at two miles per hour, a myelinated circuit can do so at 200 mph!

The more a person is immersed in Deep Practice, the more the neural pathways involved in that endeavor are reinforced by myelin. This process is the very heart of skill acquisition.

Deep Practice is as essential to math achievement as it is to ballet, tennis or skateboarding. Unfortunately, many in education remain convinced that teaching alone is the secret to math success. Clearly, instruction is vital. But without providing opportunities for Deep Practice, teachers are expecting students to run a race on one leg.

Until technology came along, we didn’t have a cost-effective means of providing students with immediate feedback when working on academic skills. This instantaneous and specific feedback is essential to sustain a Deep Practice loop that creates the myelin-protected “broadband pathways” necessary for math achievement. Today, well-designed digital games are doing so, and in the process, transforming kids’ ability to achieve Deep Practice in math education.

This article, the first in a series, examines the seven keys to achieving the many benefits that come with Deep Practice, beginning with a concept I call “Stocking the Pantry.”

To grasp this concept, we must first consider another aspect of how our brains work. America’s modern educational system is preoccupied with developing critical thinking skills. Psychologists have shown that this kind of thinking occurs in the portion of the brain concerned with working memory where reasoning and executive functions are carried out. Unfortunately, the amount of working memory in the human brain is limited. To function efficiently, our working memory focuses on abstract tasks, drawing necessary information from our long-term memory as needed.

With practice, multi-step processes can be stored into long-term memory, enabling a person to move on to higher functions. Think about it this way: as a child learning to tie a shoe, your entire working memory was absorbed in the task. Later, through practice, it becomes essentially a habit loop that you can easily pull from long-term memory. No longer does tying a shoe require your full attention.

The task of moving information, meaning, and complex processes into long-term memory is like a gourmet chef who stocks his pantry with ingredients and prepared sauces. Once there, the chef can pull them off the shelf at will to create his most sophisticated dishes. If he only has a few items in storage like salt, pepper and a few spices, that’s helpful, but it’s not nearly enough. His pantry must be fully stocked.

Many individuals in education expect our students to move quickly to higher math functions without first stocking the pantry with more basic and varied skills. This stocking can only be achieved through practice. Often people will ask, “Why are some students in the fourth grade still wasting time on addition and subtraction?” The likely answer is that those children may still be stocking their pantries with skills that should have been stored there a grade or two earlier.

For technology to facilitate Deep Practice in math, it must encompass a full range of content, from basic to advanced. It must ensure that the content is administered and “stocked” progressively. If this doesn’t occur, critical thinking simply cannot take place.

Stocking the pantry may not seem like glamorous work. Everyone wants to move to sophisticated gourmet dishes. But without the essential, repeated and progressive reinforcement of core math skills through Deep Practice, students will continue to struggle, and highly valued abilities such as critical thinking will remain out of reach.

In our next column, we’ll examine why well-designed digital math games are uniquely equipped to keep students in a state of sustained practice.

Read the full series

Robert Sun

Robert Sun

ROBERT SUN is the CEO of Suntex International and inventor of First In Math, an online program designed for energizing every child to learn, love and live mathematics.