In which I discuss the difference between work, play and deliberate practice

As part of my research into Growth Mindset, I’ve read such works as Mindset [1], Quiet [2], Drive [3], Outliers [4], Talent Is Overrated [5] and The Talent Code [6]. One thing that these works have in common is that they all make more than a passing reference to Ericsson, Krampe and Tesch-Romer’s 1993 paper ‘The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance’ [7], so I decided that it was time for me to read the original source. This post is not a full review of their paper; rather, it is simply a discussion of one short section of the paper, in which Ericsson et al distinguish between work, play and deliberate practice.

For Ericsson et al, work ‘includes public performance, competitions, services rendered for pay, and other activities directly motivated by external rewards… The costs of mistakes or failures to meet deadlines are generally great, which discourages learning and acquisition of new and possibly better methods during the time of work’ [8]. For students, the presence of external motivators like levels and grades would, by this argument, constitute work and, therefore, actively inhibit the ability of students and teachers to improve.

Play, for Ericsson et al, ‘includes activities that have no explicit goal and that are inherently enjoyable… Recent analyses of inherent enjoyment in adults reveal an enjoyable state of “flow,” in which individuals are completely immersed in an activity.’ However, this state (as identified by Csikszentmihalyi) ‘is almost antithetical to focused attention required by deliberate practice to maximize feedback and information about corrective action’ [9]. The antidote to work, therefore, is not a totally immersive state of flow of the type that is central to certain kinds of discovery learning– indeed, for students, this state has exactly the same outcome as work, in that it actively inhibits their ability to improve.

In contrast to both work and play, Ericsson et al propose deliberate practice as the optimal condition for achieving mastery. Deliberate practice, by this argument, ‘is a highly structured activity, the explicit goal of which is to improve performance. Specific tasks are invented to overcome weaknesses, and performance is carefully monitored to provide cues for ways to improve it further.’ Ericsson et al go on to claim that ‘deliberate practice requires effort and is not inherently enjoyable. Individuals are motivated to practice because practice improves performance. In addition, engaging in deliberate practice generates no immediate monetary rewards and generates costs associated with access to teachers and training environments’ [10].

The implications for teaching are clear, in that deliberate practice represents the route to mastery for students; and deliberate practice involves students learning via direct instruction under the guidance of an expert teacher, with feedback given in the form of comment-only marking linked to clear success criteria. This is the way to promote a growth mindset, in which – in the words of Ericsson et al – students ‘are motivated to practice because practice improves performance.’


[1] C. Dweck (2012) Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential [Kindle edition] (London, Constable & Robinson)

[2] S. Cain (2012) Quiet: The Power Of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking (London, Penguin)

[3] D. H. Pink (2011) Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (Edinburgh, Canongate)

[4] M. Gladwell (2009) Outliers: The Story Of Success (London, Penguin)

[5] G. Colvin (2008) Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers From Everybody Else (London, Nicholas Brealey)

[6] D. Coyle (2010) The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born, It’s Grown (London, Arrow)

[7] K. Ericsson, R. Krampe and C. Tesch-Romer (1993) ‘The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance’, in Psychological Review 100 (3) 363-406

[8] ibid., p.368

[9] ibid., p.368

[10] ibid., p.368


About carljphillips

Geography teacher. PhD in cultural/historical geography (Nott'm., 2006). SF/F genre fiction fan. Liverpool FC supporter. Libertarian. Humanist. Etc. I blog about the theory and practice of Geography teaching, and teaching in general.
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