Lots of People in Education Disagree with the Premise of Maximizing Learning

by Justin Skycak on

But in talent development, the optimization problem is clear: an individual's performance is to be maximized, so the methods used during practice are those that most efficiently convert effort into performance improvements.


“Testing” and “repetition” have become dirty words in education.

However, practice testing and distributed practice (also known as spaced repetition) are widely understood by researchers to be two of the most effective practice techniques.

Moreover, deliberate practice – which has been shown to be one of the most prominent underlying factors responsible for individual differences in performance, even among highly talented elite performers – is centered around using repetitious training activities to refine whatever skills move the needle most on a student’s overall performance.

What gives? Why are there debates about scientifically proven learning techniques like testing and repetition?

Because lots of people in education disagree with the premise of maximizing learning. The debates aren’t about whether testing and repetition are effective learning techniques – the debates are about whether education should seek to maximize students’ learning.

There are plenty of students who would prefer for their education to maximize other things like fun and entertainment while, as a secondary concern, meeting some low bar for shallowly learning some surface-level basic skills.

And there are plenty of teachers who are incentivized to use easy, fun, low-accountability, hard-to-measure practice techniques that keep students, parents, and administrators off their back. (Unfortunately, these practice techniques tend to be ineffective.)

Talent Development

The subfield within education that seeks to maximize learning is known as “talent development.”

In talent development, the optimization problem is clear: an individual’s performance is to be maximized, so the methods used during practice are those that most efficiently convert effort into performance improvements.

For instance, in talent development, all parties involved are proponents of testing. If a child is training to play a sport at a high level, such as becoming an Olympic sprinter, then the child, their parents, and their coach will all want to see regular measurements of the child’s 100-meter dash time. If that time is going down, then practice is working and everybody is happy. If the time is not going down, then it signals that something needs to be adjusted in the practice routine and nobody is happy until the problem is solved. The act of measuring performance is critical because it tells everyone whether the child is making progress towards achieving their goal.

Practitioners of talent development tend to be found in hierarchical skill domains like sports and music, where each advanced skill requires many simpler skills to be applied in complex ways. This is because it’s hard to climb up the skill hierarchy without intentionally trying to do so.

To learn an advanced skill, you must be able to comfortably execute its prerequisite skills, and the prerequisite skills underlying those, and so on. Getting to the point of comfortable execution on any skill takes lots of practice over time – and even after you get there, you have to continue practicing to maintain your ability.

None of this happens naturally. If you don’t carefully manage the process, then you struggle. Nobody gets to be really good at a sport or instrument without taking their talent development seriously and intentionally trying to maximize their learning.

The Situation in Math

Success in sports and music requires talent development. But most students aren’t expected to achieve a high level of success in sports or music, so they can get away with de-prioritizing talent development. If every student in gym class were expected to be able to do a backflip by the end of the year, things would have to change – but the expectations are so low that meeting them does not require talent development.

When it comes to math, things become problematic. Like sports and music, math is an extremely hierarchical skill domain, so achieving a high level of success requires a dedication to talent development. However, unlike sports and music, most students are expected to achieve a relatively high level of success in math: many years of courses increasing in difficulty, culminating in at least algebra, typically pre-calculus, often calculus, and sometimes even higher than that.

As a result, in math, de-prioritizing talent development leads to major issues. When students do the mathematical equivalent of playing kickball during class, and then are expected to do the mathematical equivalent of a backflip at the end of the year, it’s easy to see how struggle and general negative feelings can arise.