This page is part of my series on arete. If you have not done so, please start with the page on Arete Guide.
Let’s review the road-map that we made for the skills category.
- Math Skills
- Self Defense
- Foreign Language
The bad news about this category is that developing skills takes a lot more time than developing knowledge. The good news is that there is a lot less to learn. Flashcards aren’t going to help us much here. In this category we practice things over and over until they are automatic.
Automaticity is the name given for learning something so well that it becomes automatic. There are a lot of skills for which you have gained automaticity. For example, you no longer have to sound out words in English. You just look at them and you know what word you’re reading (unless it’s a word you’ve never or rarely seen). Reading the word has become automatic. If you ever learn a language with a different alphabet, you’ll see how important it is that reading is automatic for you. I speak and read a little Russian. As you may know, the Russian alphabet is very different from the English one. Decoding Russian words takes a lot of work for me because I have to remember all the sounds for the symbols and then combine them the right way. It’s exhausting and by the time I finish a paragraph or even a sentence, there’s a good chance I’ll have forgotten what the whole thing is about because my brain is so occupied with decoding symbols.
This happens in math as well. Students who don’t know their multiplication tables have a tough time solving algebra problems because their brains are overwhelmed with simple arithmetic. Researchers studied two groups of students to find out what kind of instruction would benefit students the most: basic skills or abstract understanding. Both groups had the same classes, but one also practiced basic addition, subtraction, multiplication and division while the other was given the kind of creative-thinking-discovery-learning-woo-woo bullshit that K-12 education in America is so enamored with these days. The result? The kids who practiced basic skills did better. You will never hear about this study in any teacher training classes in the United States.
Automaticity can only be achieved through extended practice. There is no shortcut. Athletes who practice the same skill over and over understand this, but many people seem to think that this does not apply to mental skills. It does. If you want to get good at conjugating verbs, you have to practice it over and over.
Practice doesn’t just mean doing something a lot. Most people who have been driving for 20 years are no better at it for all the experience because they haven’t been trying to improve. They reached a certain level of competence an stayed there. Practice is doing something with the intention of becoming better at it. This requires that you pay attention to your performance and try to do better each time. Getting better at any skill and making any skill automatic requires extended practice.
Click on the skills below to see my recommendations for developing them.