Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Deliberate Practice and Project Coach

Don Siegel

When growing-up I spent hours and hours in parks and playgrounds trying to hone my basketball skills. During those hours and years, my peers and I came to believe that some kids had more talent for basketball than did others. Better players seemed to be able to practice less, yet still excel, earning a spot on the coveted high school basketball team for which 100s tried out. I’m not sure whether I had talent for basketball or not, but I certainly practiced as much as I could to develop the skills I needed to make the team. But, in retrospect, I now wonder why I was not better; given the time I spent practicing? Did I only have a limited amount of talent for the game, or was I not practicing the right things in the right way? Now, a new book entitled PEAK: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool[1] provides answers to my questions.

Over decades of study, Ericsson has found that better performers in a domain typically are made, rather than born. His research that attempts to explain how expertise across an array of domains is acquired shows that experts typically practice a great deal more than others who are less proficient. Yet, his critical observation is that it is not just the absolute number of practice hours in which they engage that matters, but the way those hours are structured. He used the term deliberate practice, to differentiate it from traditional practice to distinguish what was special about what they did during practice. In contrast to how I honed my basketball skills, which entailed simply repeating over and over again what I did well, deliberate practice requires learners to acquire skills that more advanced performers are able to execute well, and typically are on the outer boundary of what they are able to do. In essence, they are constantly pushing their envelop by acquiring more advanced capabilities, rather than simply repeating over and over again what they already are able to do well. In PEAK, Ericsson and Pool point out that the reason why so many recreational players across sports appear to hit performance plateaus, even after years and years or participation, is because they rarely venture beyond their comfort zones, as they simply do the same things over and over again. They state:

The sorts of activities that most people consider "practice" are generally not very helpful in improving one's performance. A golfer gets in at least eighteen holes every week and tries to hit a bucket of balls at the driving range beforehand. A pianist plays the same exercises over and over until they are completely automatic. A teacher has been teaching the same material in the same way for twenty years, thinking that practice must eventually make perfect. None of these people are likely to see much improvement despite all that "practice."

So what is deliberate practice? For practice to be maximally effective, Ericsson and Pool assert that it should have the following qualities:

1.     It is a specialized--and particularly effective--form of purposeful practice where an experienced coach designs the training exercises and monitors a player’s progress, modifying the training as necessary to keep the player progressing steadily. A critical point is that the coach is able to assess the strengths/weaknesses of her player, understand the knowledge and skills that she needs to acquire to move to the next level, and be able to design and run practice sessions in which players practice these things.

2.     Such sessions require a great deal of effort on the player’s part, as they typically focus on attempting to execute skills on the edge of their comfort zone. If the skills practiced seem easy or executed automatically, probably not much new learning is occurring.

3.     Effective practice requires precise feedback—a player needs to know what he is doing wrong so that he can figure out ways to make corrections. The resulting progress comes as a series of baby steps, none very impressive on its own, but they can add up to performing quite complex skills in a very expeditious manner.

4.     The focus should be on the acquisition of skills, with knowledge of the domain being a by-product of learning, rather than it’s main focus. That is to say, no one ever learned to become a great basketball player, a great violinist, a great surgeon, or a great coach by reading how to do these things from a book, or by being lectured to about them.

5.     With regard to knowledge, Ericsson’s focus is on the creation of mental representations that develop during practice. These are multifaceted representations of the skills to be executed, as well as the real world situations in which they should be deployed. Essentially, what is asserted here is that advanced skills must have internal mental representations, which help both in their execution, and in the assessment process, which compares what was done to what was attempted. By having such a representation, internal feedback is meaningful, which entails comparing what was attempted with what actually happened. Mental representations develop over time, and make it possible to execute a skill with greater and greater precision.

6.     As one can surmise, a critical factor in deliberate practice is having the motivation to continue doing activities that are challenging, and often frustrating because of a lack of success (at least at the beginning). Ericsson asserts: When a student is first learning a skill, it is critical to limit their practice time to 15-20 minutes per day so they are able to concentrate fully and make observable improvements. Ericsson has found that experts practice multiple times each day for shorter sessions. This allows them to allocate full concentration and effort to improving on those things that they do not do very well.

A book such as PEAK is critical for a program such as Project Coach, as one of our core goals is to develop coaches who can help their players improve their skills at a variety of sports. Of course, this is not our only objective. We also want kids to have fun engaging in a variety of physical activities, while learning to be good teammates and sports persons. Yet, the deliberate practice approach also is a means to teaching youth what it takes to become good at something, whether it be sports, as a student in school, or as a community leader.  

Whatever the domain, the formula of deliberate practice entails identifying what one does well, and what one needs to do better, and then to design activities that help one to overcome weaknesses. This takes time, and the crafting of practices in a deliberate manner, that are guided by a coach or teacher who can inspire an individual to keep working at difficult tasks. Feedback is critical to motivating individuals and helping them to understand where they are at, where they need to go, and how to get there. While these ideas many not be very complex, being able to operationalize them is.  Developing coaches who can help their players to improve, while making practices fun and rewarding also entails deliberate practice. For a quick and snappy video about deliberate practice click here.


Friday, June 10, 2016

The Mysterious Connection Between Education and Health

Don Siegel

While youth development work involves many things, perhaps no outcome is more important than promoting health and well-being. Although, programs may or may not have components that most people associate with health promotion such as: physical activity, nutrition counseling, drug prevention, sex education, and violence avoidance, their support for educational attainment (years of schooling) is probably the single most potent factor in health promotion.  For many people this may appear to be a strange statement, as it would seem that directly addressing various health promoting or compromising behaviors would have the greatest “bang for the buck”, but a large body of research is showing that educational attainment is the single most important factor related to health across one’s life span.

Support for this contention comes from the many relationships that exist between education and markers of health. To get a sense of what I am writing about various studies have shown that people with more years in school have reduced morbidity from heart conditions, stroke, hypertension, elevated cholesterol, emphysema, diabetes, asthma, and ulcers.[1] As well, infant mortality rates are about half as large for mothers with 16 or more years of education than for mothers with 11 years or less. Educational attainment is also connected to longevity with college graduates living 5 years longer than individuals who have not finished high school (men – 79.7  vs. 72.9; women 83.5 vs. 78.4)![2]

Seemingly, such health outcomes could be mediated by a number of variables other than educational attainment, but evidence also exists that connects educational attainment to health promoting behaviors. For example, those with more years of schooling are less likely to smoke, to drink a lot, to be overweight or obese, or to use illegal drugs. Better educated individuals are also more likely to exercise and to obtain preventive care such as flu shots, vaccines, mammograms, pap smears, colonoscopies, to use seat belts, to have a house with a smoke detector and to have tested their house for radon.[3]

Again, while no one can definitively explain the causal connections between educational attainment, health behaviors, and health outcomes, a number of ideas have been advanced over the years that may mediate the relationships. These include, but are not limited, to the following:

1.     Environmental Argument: More education typically leads to greater incomes, which, in turn, provides more control over where one lives. Neighborhoods are associated with such things as housing quality, safety, proximity to supermarkets, access to recreation, availability of health providers, and the quality of air and water. Along with the physical environment, health is linked to the social environment in a neighborhood. Neighborhoods in which residence have stronger bonds have been shown to be places in which residents are more likely …to work together to achieve common goals such as
cleaner and safer public spaces, healthy behaviors and good schools; to exchange
information regarding childcare, jobs and other resources that affect health; and to
maintain informal social controls discouraging crime or other undesirable behaviors
such as smoking or alcohol use among youths, drunkenness, littering and graffiti—
all of which can directly or indirectly influence health.[4] Another version of the environmental contention is that more highly educated people get “better” jobs that, in addition to paying higher incomes and providing health insurance, offer safer work environments. In essence, this stream of thinking connects education with jobs, which are invariably connected with income and, in a variety of ways, with the environments that people either chose or a forced to live in. While researchers contend that the linkages between environment and health are complex, with research still to be done, they also assert that the overwhelming evidence is that the physical and social environments in which people live are strong predictors of their health, and that income, which is largely determined by education, is a critical factor in where people chose to live.

2.     Social Networks: Another aspect of the social environment is the support one gets from people around them. More educated persons have been shown to have larger social systems for financial, physical and emotional support.  Peer approval/disapproval can also effect whether one engages in high-risk behaviors. Thus, this theory contends that if more educated people associate with more educated friends, who are more likely to behave healthily and value health, the peer effects of networks will self propagate.  This does not only relate to adults, but to children whose social network includes their parents. Indeed, the connection between a parent’s education and their child’s health is very strong. Consequently, the education-health connection has a cross-generational-cascading effect in which more educated parents have healthier children, who, in turn become more educated and are healthier. They, in turn, live in healthier neighborhoods and associate with others who value healthy behaviors. Here, education, income, and social networks are interconnected, and are directly related to the subcultures that emerge. One need only observe the prevalence of parks, fitness clubs, supermarkets promoting organic foods, fast-food restaurants, and liquor stores in a community to get a sense of what it values with regard to healthy lifestyles.

3.     Future Optimism:  If education leads to higher income, greater control over one’s life, and generally improves one’s outlook on the future, individuals may be more likely to behave in ways to protect that future. On the other hand, less educated individuals may engage in riskier behaviors since the value of living to an advanced age is lower, and probably seen as less likely. Here, a psychological perspective that perceives a future filled with success and happiness, logically leads to a desire to protect one’s current and future health. On the other hand for folks living under duress, and who see little likelihood for change, the opposite may be true. As Bob Dylan’s song Like a Rolling Stone proclaims, When you ain't got nothing, you got nothing to lose. With little to lose, engaging in an array of health compromising activities may provide instant gratification, but do so at the expense of longer-term health. Thus, more or less education is connected to investing or not investing in one’s future, and a more or less hopeful future determines whether or not one engages in health enhancing or health compromising activities.

4.     Information and Cognitive Skills: This idea connotes that more educated people are better informed, and, thus, make use of health related information to a greater extent than less educated individuals. For example, people with more years of education were more likely to quit smoking after the Surgeon General’s 1964 report that definitively linked smoking with lung cancer. It is also hypothesized that persons with more years of education have a greater awareness and understanding of modern ideas about nutrition, exercise, drug and alcohol abuse, and the most effective ways to manage diseases. Another variation on this theme is that more educated persons may not only be more aware of recent information about health, but also have greater regard for scientific findings, and, thus, be more willing to change their behavior accordingly. Higher educational attainment may also be connected to developing higher-level critical thinking and decision skills, which are essential to the regulation and control of behavior.

In summary, it is evident that health is intricately and powerfully connected with educational attainment. While the connections are complex, the emerging picture seems to reveal that educational attainment impacts such things as future income, which effects many of the choices that people can make about their lives including where they live, who they associate with, and how they think about their futures. Education also affects the access that people have to information, how they think about current health issues, and their willingness to act rationally to enhance their lives. Of critical importance is how the educational attainment of a parent affects their children with regard to a child’s own educational attainment, and the concomitant health benefits that accrue from such. So it appears that youth development programs that include activities such as sports, nutrition, violence prevention, and drug education are serving an immediate need to get kids on track to live healthy lives. To sustain these efforts, educational attainment is critical, and those programs that support the educational success of their participants are doing work that is truly transformative when considering their future health and well-being.


Thursday, May 19, 2016

What does Project Coach Cost in Comparison to Other Out-of-School Programs?

 Don Siegel

While questions relating to the actual or potential benefits accruing to participants in youth development programs can be difficult to answer at any particular point in time, the question of costs is of immediate interest to those involved in starting, scaling, or funding a program. Although the cost question seems fairly straight forward, it really is a bit more complicated than most people would think. Granting that actual cash expenditures for operations are included in all analyses, things get a bit trickier when trying to estimate the value of in-kind contributions, the use of free or reduced-cost facilities, or how to value the time and expertise of volunteer advisers, tutors and mentors. As well, programs also vary with regard to the breath and depth with which participants engage. Some programs are designed to take large numbers of youth who are provided minimum dosage and supervision, while others take a much smaller number of participants, but who are provided many hours of guidance in a smaller number of activities. This breath-depth variation also plays a role in computing and understanding a program’s cost. 

Nonetheless, having acknowledged the difficulties of computing costs, the Wallace Foundation[1] made an effort to do so, and to provide some benchmarks. Given the “apples and bananas” nature of such analyses, they examined the costs for 111 high quality programs located in six cities (Boston, Charlotte, Chicago, Denver, New York and Seattle). High quality was defined as programs having a high attendance rate (averaging 79% or greater), a high staff/youth ratio (averaging 1:8.3 or better), highly qualified staff (based on educational attainment and training - 30+ hours), and having leadership opportunities for older youth. Included in calculations were: staff salaries and benefits, space and utilities, administrative support, transportation, student stipends, and miscellaneous (snacks, meals, materials, staff training, etc.). Although their sample contained programs varying in size, focus, content, age groupings, location, staffing, ratio of staff to children, facilities, in-kind contributions, management and hours of operation, they did acknowledge that the sample was nonrandom, and that one must be careful when using their data to generalize to the universe of Out-of-School programs.

Cross tabulating programs by whether they were primarily for elementary students (ES), high school students (HS), or middle schools students (MS), they produced the estimates found below. On average, the cost of programs for elementary students (ES) was $6/hr. per slot[2], for high school students (HS) $10/hr., and for programs that had ES, middle school (MS), and HS students it was $9/hr. For programs that were solely focused on academics, the average slot cost was $12/hr. Ranges from the 25th to 75th percentile for each program category are also included.

Wallace (Slot Costs)
Range (25th to 75th percentile)
ES/MS Students Only
$4 - $12/hr
$5 - $12/hr
Academic Focus

Where does Project Coach Fall in this Matrix?

Given these values, I was wondering how Project Coach fared when compared to these estimates. Using a similar algorithm as that used by the Wallace Foundation, I estimated slot costs/hour of Project Coach to be $7.03[3]. This falls on the lower end of the range ($5 - $12) for programs with ES, MS, and HS students, and significantly less than the $9 average computed in the Wallace Database. While Project Coach seems relatively inexpensive compared to other programs, a likely reason for this is that, in contrast to the Wallace Foundation that found staff salaries, administration, and benefits to represent approximately 70% of a programs budget, staff salaries, administration, and benefits in Project Coach represent only 36% of the budget. As well, in the Wallace database space and utilities represented 13% of budgets, while in Project Coach space and utilities are in-kind contributions from Smith College and the Springfield School Department. As an aggregate, we see that collaborating with a college, and the school department in which a program is embedded can offset many expenses.

In computing costs, one can always jump to the conclusion that less expensive also means lesser quality. But, Wallace also compiled a list of nine indicators of quality. Many of these indicators have to do with staff training and evaluation, and the ratio of staff to youth. Using these criteria, Project Coach fared quite well. For example, staff meetings take place at least twice a month”. Project Coach has one or more staff meetings each week. Another guideline is that staff members are referred to training sessions. Project Coach has one or more training sessions each week. Guideline 8 states that programs operate with a low-staff-to-youth ratio (less than or equal to 1:10). In Project Coach the ratio of staff to HS students is 1:3[4], and for ES it is 1:3.5[5].

While it is true that variability across programs makes direct cost comparisons inexact, doing such an analysis provides greater understanding about how a program’s dollars are being spent, and how in-kind contributions can off-set out-of-pocket expenses. This brief analysis of Project Coach shows that it is a relatively lower cost program, that also meets the standards of high quality. Yet, it also shows that a large part of it’s cost effectiveness results from it collaborating with Smith College and the Springfield School Department. 

For those interested in estimating the cost of a program the Wallace Foundation provides a cost estimator calculator at

[2] Slot cost/hour is a standard metric used by researchers who compute program costs. It is the cost of serving one more youth over the course of a program schedule (e.g., having an average daily attendance—ADA—of 101 versus 100). Cost per slot is calculated by dividing the total cost by a program’s ADA.
[3] I used 90% attendance for MS/HS participants and 80% attendance for ES students.
[4] This ratio goes to 1:1 when HS students are tutored by Smith College Students.
[5] This low ratio is a result of MS/HS students being considered staff when tutoring and coaching ES students.