Does practice make perfect?

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Does practice make perfect? Malcolm Gladwell's claim that 10,000 hours of deliberate practice is required to become world class in any field, has been challenged by a Princeton University study. There is also the argument that too much practice can lead to false belief in ability and loss of concentration, resulting in errors and even catastrophe. Many car accidents are caused by novices, but a similar number are caused by experienced drivers. The common factor is distraction, also known as loss of focus.

Right now, two of my favourite theories are James Gibson's Affordances theory and David White's Digital Residents and Visitors theory. The first is useful because it helps us to understand how people use tools and technologies, and the second helps us to explain how technologies are used in different contexts.

In Affordance theory, the design of a tool can present a number of possible ways to use it. For example, a knife can be used to cut bread and also to spread butter. The first action relies on the sharpness of the edge of the knife, while spreading butter relies on the flatness of the blade. These are two separate affordances of the design of the knife, but its design also has constraints. It cannot easily be used to eat with as one would with a spoon or a fork (although this is not entirely impossible). The caveat is that with practice, the user of the tool can come to understand what can be done, and what cannot be done with the tool.

This connects neatly with Residents and Visitors theory, which states that habitual use of a tool (or technology) results in the user becoming familiar with the tool to the extent that they can be considered 'resident' in that tool. Conversely, visitors are those who only use a tool or technology on a casual basis and therefore are less adept at using it than a resident in the same tool. My hypothesis is that residents of tools and technologies are more familiar with the affordances and constraints than visitors. This would explain how visitors might make more errors of use than residents. However, it might also run counter to the use of some technologies where over familiarisation can lead to distraction which can result in error and mishap. The environment is as important as the tool - the manner in which we apply technology is as important as the context.

Therefore practice does not necessarily make perfect, but understanding the affordances and constraints of our tools helps, as does focus on the task in hand.

Creative Commons License
Does practice make perfect? by Steve Wheeler was written in Plymouth, England and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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