Whether we are learning how to hold a tennis racket and hit a topspin forehand, or how to position and shape our hands when playing the piano, we have a tendency to approach new skills in a very cut-and-dried way. As if there is only one “correct” way to perform the skill.

We also tend to operate under the assumption that the path to expert performance requires practicing this skill over and over in exactly the same way until it is automatic and can be executed without any conscious thought.

Both sound like very reasonable premises – but it turns out there can be a downsides to this learning approach.

Wait…how so?

The problem with seeking the one “correct” way to perform a skill

My wife grew up living in big cities, so never got around to driving lessons until she was in college. I still remember the day of her driving test, when we practiced her parallel parking skills in an empty lot with me playing the role of a pylon.

I remember this day because she kept running into me. We were puzzled by her consistency, and as we talked through her parallel parking strategy, we soon realized what the problem was. She was taking the test in a 2-door Honda Civic hatchback – but had received all of her lessons in a much larger car. A car with a different turning radius. She had assumed from her teacher’s instructions that the same hand placement and turning movements that worked on the Taurus would work on the Civic too, and got locked into focusing too much on the “correct” way to do it.

Oops1.

Why experts are experts

This may seem like a slightly silly example (and probably not the one my wife would have wanted me to use), but it begins to illustrate how the “this-is-the-correct-way” approach to learning can cause problems.

As Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer notes in her book The Power of Mindful Learning, expert performers don’t become experts by being obedient learners, following the rules better, and accepting without question the way they were initially taught to perform basic skills. Yes, they hold onto the fundamentals, but they become experts by varying and adapting these skills in pursuit of an even higher level of performance.

Consider, for instance, how different two musicians’ approaches to playing the same instrument can be. How different Heifetz and Kreisler looked and sounded. Or in tennis, how different two players’ serves and strokes can look – like John McEnroe and Andre Agassi.

Of course, we can’t simply copy these individual styles, because they may not work for us. In much the same way that playing without a shoulder rest is awesome, but may not work for everyone, there is no one single “best” way to execute a skill that works in exactly the same way for every musician.

Sure, there are fundamental mechanical principles that underlie execution of these skills, but individual physiological differences and styles of play, require that we tweak and adjust the basic elements of a skill to work for our unique needs.

All this to say that it can become a problem when we approach new skills (and pieces/excerpts) assuming that we just have to get the basics down first, and can worry about flexibility later.

The danger in baking in this inflexibility from day 1, is that unlearning this rigidity and moving away from this mindset may not be as easy as we think.

Conditional vs. absolute learning

As an example, Langer and a colleague conducted a study where a group of kids were taught a new game called “Smack-it ball.” Basically, it was squash, but with rackets worn on each hand like baseball gloves.

Half of the kids were given “absolute” instructions, as in “this is how to hold your hand.” The other half were given “conditional” instructions – like “one way to hold your hand might be…”

After a bit of practice, the researchers secretly swapped out the ball with a heavier one that required significant changes to how they moved and played the game. Some of the kids adapted just fine, but some struggled – specifically, the girls who received absolute instructions.

Why the gender difference? Langer hypothesized that boys, who are stereotypically encouraged to be more rebellious, would be less likely to be influenced by the suggestion that there’s a single correct way to to perform the skill. Girls, on the other hand, who often receive implicit messages that being a “good girl” means following the rules and faithfully adhering to instructions, failed to adapt to the new ball when given the absolute “this is how…” instructions. Interestingly, the girls who received conditional instructions – and were essentially encouraged to think more freely on their own – performed just as well as the boys.

Absolute learning in the practice room

So, one problem with learning skills as if there’s only one correct way to perform them is that it could lead to a rigid, inflexible approach that may limit our performance down the road. But there’s another issue as well.

This “absolute learning” mindset can lead to a pretty mindless and uncreative approach to practicing too.

As an example, Langer also conducted a study of piano novices, who were recruited to learn how to play a C-major scale.

One group (the mindful practice group) was instructed to be creative and vary their playing during a 20-minute practice session. They were asked to “try to learn these fingering exercises without relying on rote memorization. Try to keep learning new things about your piano playing. Try to change your style every few minutes, and not lock into one particular pattern. While you practice, attend to the context, which may include very subtle variations or any feelings, sensations, or thoughts you are having.”

The other group (the traditional practice group) was simply taught how to practice in a more conventional learning-by-repeating-the-same-thing-over-and-over-until-it-sounds-better way.

All participants’ playing was taped and evaluated. Unsurprisingly, the playing of the participants in the mindful practice group was rated as sounding more a) competent and b) creative. They also expressed enjoying their practice more than the folks who practiced in the traditional repeat-until-it’s-in-your-muscle-memory kind of way.

Takeaways

Increasing ambiguity in the early stages of learning seems a little counter-intuitive at first, but I’m intrigued by this conditional approach to learning, and the idea of making it clear from the very beginning stages of skill development that there is more than one way to do something.

After all, while we do all want more consistency in our playing, variety and spontaneity is pretty critical too – both in the practice room to keep us from getting bored, and on stage to keep our listeners (and ourselves) awake engaged.

And as a parent of both a boy and girl, it makes me reflect on how subtle changes in my language (“here’s one way to do this” vs. “here’s how to do this”) could encourage both my kids to think more independently for themselves rather than following instructions without question (except, of course, when it’s time to brush their teeth and go to bed).

Additional reading

More on Ellen Langer and her work @NYTimes

And on the subject of mindfulness as it relates to learning @University of British Columbia

Footnotes

  1. She passed her test just fine, in case you were wondering.