Monday, June 13, 2022

The science of expertise: how to help professionals peak with your blended learning design

I am hooked by the Wordblitz game app - making words. I play it 2-3 times per day. I can see if I'm getting better by the scores I gain on the daily challenge. When I started playing I was simply making words. Then I suddenly discovered the 2x and 3x values and tried to make words with the higher valued letters first. This improved my score enormously. Later I discovered that you can see the complete list of possible words. Going through the list made me aware of what is possible and I shifted to larger words.  Can anybody get better at Wordblitz? I think so! 

How do you make people experts and ensure they will peak? How can you make a good blended design so that people become top of the bill in their area of expertise? I read  Peak by Anders Ericsson en Robert Pool. 

It is a fantastic book which gave me many new ideas and insights. I knew the word 'deliberate practice' but now I understand it much better. The authors have done a lot of research on top athletes, people who play the violin and experts who have reached the top of their field. They call it "the science of expertise". How does one become an expert? This provides a lot of insight into the elements of a strongly blended trajectory when the goal is to let your participants excel. When you want to bring their craftsmanship to a high level. 

A few of my eye-openers

Not talent but practice will take you far

Talent is over-rated. Research among violin players shows this very clearly. We think the top violinists are all naturals. Born with a violin in their hand. However, a survey of musicians shows something completely different! Intermediate level violin players under the age of 18 have practiced for 3420 hours. But the more interesting finding: the better violin players 5301 hours and the best 7410 hours! This shows that practice is much more important than innate talent. I should have continued with mandolin lessons :). However, just doing doesn't make you better at your profession.

Purposeful practice: consciously doing more difficult things

I like to learn in practise - the reason why I never sign up for training or courses. I was convinced that practice makes perfect. An experienced driver is better than a starter and a doctor who has been practising for 20 years is better than a youngster. But that's not true. By practising, you do reach the level of 'average performance' and develop routines. However, after this level you don't automatically get better by doing. A doctor who has been in the profession for 20 years can perform worse than a doctor with 5 years of experience. If you do want to get better, you need deliberate practice and purposeful practice: conscious and purposeful practice. 

In one of the studies, a student had to remember more and more numbers. If it goes well, he gets longer strings of numbers to remember. If he makes a mistake, he gets fewer numbers. The core of this is that you gradually stretch what someone is already able to do. In learning this is called scaffolding. 

What I found super interesting is that the student sometimes encountered a barrier and thought he was at the max of the total numbers he could recall. But then he found a new way to apply a logic to the numbers and he could continue, yet remember more numbers. Peak explains “you develop new mental models” - new ways of looking. This is I think a clue to higher performance- higher performance comes with new mental models. 

Learn from the best and define good performance

With Wordblitz and memorizing a high amount of numbers it is easy to measure a performance. With leadership, for example, this is much more difficult. What is a top performance? In deliberate practice you know what a good standard is and you work towards it. The standard is set by the top performers in the field. It then helps to have a trainer or coach who knows the standard and can help you. How do you achieve this in a field where top performance is less visible? You can find out who the experts are by asking people. You may approach the experts and interview them. Have them think out loud while they work.  You can even copy experts to understand them. I have once painted a painting by Marlene Dumas and have indeed learned quite a lot from it in terms of color choice.

You need feedback while practicing. Are you doing well? When are you on a plateau? It helps if you have a coach who can observe you and give you feedback.

How do you translate this into a good blended design?

Important tips from Peak are:

  1. Find the experts and set the standard
  2. Make sure people practice consciously (purposeful and deliberate practice)
  3. Ensure they get feedback on their performance
  4. Help develop mental representations

What the latter looks like is illustrated by an example of a chemistry lesson at a school. In the past, facts were mainly taught by telling the students. Now students get questions and tasks. When answering, they have to think out loud and mistakes were corrected, sometimes by student assistants, sometimes by the teacher. The main advantage is that they are immediately corrected in thinking errors. 

Find the experts

Technology offers new possibilities to invite experts.
  • You can do a lot with video and audio. Think of the success of the YouTube teachers. Not only students can learn from this, but other teachers could also copy it. Ask for the experts in their field. Don't make the usual talking head video, but let the expert respond to 3 practical situations. How do you handle this? In developing the mission safety module for defense I asked what commanders do who do well. We re-enacted 3 situations in an audio conversation. 
  • Working Outloud is an interesting approach. Can you invite people to think out loud? I remember the video of a teacher who had won a prize. Other teachers really enjoyed seeing how they approach it in class
  • Organize (online) masterclasses. Focus on a case or participant.

Make sure people practice consciously (purposeful and deliberate practice)

  • The advantage of a blended trajectory is that the total time is often longer than a live trajectory and you can therefore build in much more practice. A new idea to include purposeful practice is that you can form groups of people that want to practice a certain skill. Can you give them a standard?
  • With collaborative learning in projects, you can pay more attention to what people want to practice. In the course, participants do this during the facilitation assignment. Some groups manage to do this better than others by organizing the assignment in such a way that everyone can practice.
  • You can also let people practice online (against the myth). Eg recording a video via Traintool or Flipgrid reacting to a difficult situation. Or think of virtual reality.


  • Can you organize that participants receive individual feedback online? Deploy coaches? In our series of online courses for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the feedback from a civil servant was indeed very useful. However, the coaches always said it is very time consuming (though fun). Can you also work with a standard answer made by the experts?
  • You can also use peer assists for feedback. It is even more important to develop a standard. In our course participants make a blended design and receive peer feedback and from us as supervisors/ experts.

Help develop 'mental representations' 

I find this the most difficult one to translate into blended learning design. I think it's about teaching fewer tricks, but helping to think for yourself. Can you help me with this one? 

  • Instead of organizing a Microsoft Teams course, invite a colleague who is handy to explain how he / she learns works with Teams.
  • You can also think of visualizations, let people draw how they approach it. This can be done on paper but also online using Miro of Mural