Learning and practising

Dear colleagues,

Imagine this: you're doing something challenging, like writing an article, developing a grant application or preparing a lecture. Rather than dreading this task, you look forward to it as a process of practising a skill, and become totally involved in it. You don't worry about doing it well - you just do it. And because you're focused and concentrating on the process, you actually achieve a better outcome.

This is the promise of the book The Practicing Mind by Thomas Sterner. He sees all of life as a process of practising, one that can become enthralling and satisfying.

He tells about his experiences learning to play golf. He was in a group receiving instruction from a golf pro, who showed them the basics and sent them off to practise before the next week's lesson. Most of the group didn't practise and hence didn't improve, though they did worry about their lack of progress. Sterner, though, spent time every day doing the tasks assigned by the pro, and reviewing his notes on how to do them. He enjoyed being immersed in the task - and he improved.

Does this remind you of students in your classes? Most of them don't read, write and think about their assignments daily. Instead, seeing study as something unpleasant - as "work" - they procrastinate until an assignment is impending, and then put in effort that is experienced as unsatisfying. Without marks and degrees, few students would study at all.

The same applies to many of the activities people undertake as adults. Practising a skill is often postponed, because it doesn't provide immediate satisfaction: it is seen as work.

If you enjoy improving your research skills, you will look forward to spending time nearly every day when you can be totally engrossed in a challenging task. If you enjoy improving your teaching skills, you will look forward to time spent improving your class plans, your lecture delivery, your assignments, and even marking of assignments.

This sounds attractive - but it's not easy to reach this place. Being able to totally focus on a process, be immersed in the effort of improving, is a skill in itself, one that needs to be acquired and improved through practice. Sterner says that this is "A paradox of life: The problem with patience and discipline is that developing each of them requires both of them."

The Practicing Mind is short, readable and profound. It does not come across as an effort of scholarship. There are no references. Sterner draws on his life experiences in business - piano remanufacturing - and as a jazz musician, private pilot, golfer and archery student. He studied philosophy; the Buddhist roots of his insights are obvious yet understated. In simple and straightforward prose, he provides deep insights in an accessible fashion.

Following in Sterner's footsteps involves developing a mental state that enables total immersion in practice. One benefit is improving much faster, because the mind is not burdened with concerns about reaching the goal, about what else needs to be done, or about unfairness, lost opportunities and personal slights. However, the greater benefit is the experience of mindful practice itself.

As applied to academic work, learning how to practise skills has significant implications, which however are very difficult to adopt. Students for the most part consider study as something necessary rather than something to be embraced. Very few students look forward to studying when no marks are attached. The challenge for teachers, and the education system, is to find a way to stimulate students' intrinsic motivation. The problem is that providing extrinsic rewards - such as grades and degrees - reduces intrinsic motivation. In a fundamental way, the education system is set up in a way that undermines its own goals.

The same applies to academic work. Because teaching and research are seen as work, in contrast to leisure, effort in improving is often made grudgingly. How many academics enjoy practising their teaching skills? How many academics look forward to writing papers as a satisfying activity in itself?

It is definitely worth reading The Practicing Mind. If you take on board Sterner's insights, you will realise you cannot develop skills of patience and discipline quickly. It takes time. Sterner says developing these skills is undertaking a journey - a journey called life.


Thomas M. Sterner, The Practicing Mind: Developing Focus and Discipline in Your Life (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2012; Mountain Sage Publishing, 2004)

Quote from pages xiv-xv

In our overpaced and overstressed world today, we use the word skill to define a personal asset; for example, we might say, "That is not part of my skill set." At the same time, our recognition of the value of possessing many diverse skills is expanding. Ironically, though, we miss the point that the ability to develop any skill as swiftly as possible, with the least amount of effort, and even to experience inner peace and joy in the process, is in fact a skill itself, and one that requires constant practice to become an effortless part of who we are.

When we learn to focus on and embrace the process of experiencing life, whether we're working toward a personal aspiration or working through a difficult time, we begin to free ourselves from the stress and anxiety that are born out of our attachments to our goals, our sense that "I can't feel happiness until I reach my goal." This "goal" always takes the form of someplace we have not yet reached, something we don't yet have but will at some point, and then, we believe, all will be right in our life.

| When we subtly shift toward both focusing on and finding joy in the process of achieving instead of having the goal, we have gained a new skill. And once mastered, it is magical and incredibly empowering.

We describe those who demonstrate this "skill" as possessing such qualities as self-discipline, focus, patience, and self-awareness, and we recognize that these all-important virtues are interwoven threads in the fabric of true inner peace and contentment in life. With this skill, we are masters of the energy we expend in life, and without it, we are victims of our own unfocused and constantly changing efforts, desires, and directions.

The Practicing Mind helps you to understand and develop this skill as a natural part of who you are, and to understand how the culture we live in constantly instructs us to the contrary. This book is about how learning to live in the present moment and becoming process-oriented centers us on this magical path and brings us a wonderful sense of patience with both ourselves and our lives as we learn to enjoy our journey.

Links to research

Sterner's ideas can be readily linked to research and writing in several areas.

* Practice as the deliberate repetition of a process (p. 22) accords with research on expert performance. My comment: http://www.bmartin.cc/pubs/comments/1206Syed.html

* Practising by focusing on the process rather than the product is the key idea of Carol Dweck's Mindset. See http://www.bmartin.cc/pubs/comments/0810mindset.html

* Sterner's critique of grading (p. 29) accords with Alfie Kohn, Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, As, Praise, and other Bribes (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993).

* Sterner's view that habits can be replaced (pp. 63-73) accords with Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit. See http://www.bmartin.cc/pubs/comments/1302habits.html

* Sterner's recommendation to be in the moment while practising - the central theme in his book - reflects Buddhist principles. Applied to learning, it links with Ellen J. Langer, The Power of Mindful Learning (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1997).

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