I have so many strong memories of my early days of teaching Parkour. I was determined to do it right! None of this teaching the movements crap – I wanted to get right to the heart of it. Teach the deeper concepts. I wanted to help my students discover the meaning behind the movements. Help them see the deeper processes that led to meaningful Parkour. I wanted to explain the why not just the how.

Little did I know that I was falling into one of the most common fallacies of modern education theory. Treating novice learners like they are experts.

A novice learner is someone who has no specific knowledge about a topic. They lack any knowledge related to the topic and also lack any exposure to similar topics that may apply to the area they are learning about.

In contrast an expert learner is someone who has domain specific knowledge that helps them understand the topic you are teaching them. While they may not have encountered this specific problem before they have encountered many similar ones.

There are two important takeaways from this idea. The first is that this is a sliding scale not a pair of absolutes. Almost everyone sits somewhere between. Secondly, by virtue of their position, teachers coaches and educators will always be experts. They have deep domain specific knowledge about an issue and understand it in a very different manner from the novice learners they are invariably teaching.

An expert learner struggles to think like a novice. Why? Because it is difficult for us to fathom just how far removed we are from this stage. We are often considered experts once we have achieved 10,000 hours of practice at something. That is 3 and a half years of work 8 hours a day, 7 days a week. It would take most people a few decades to reach this number. Take a moment and just think about it. How many hours have you spent practicing? Jumping and landing? Balancing, swinging, creating routes, playing with weird moves– and all of that built on many more years as a child jumping around, playing, climbing trees and doing so many other movements that allow you to understand exactly why.

Which can be a problem. As educators we often see deeper into the movements than our students. This is mostly due to changes in how we process things and our working memory. Expert learners have automated many of the movements and patterns that they apply when moving. They don’t need to think about where they are placing their foot in a step-through, or how to balance. These are automatic processes and therefore don’t require much working memory. Instead they can automate these processes and pay attention to the intricacies. This could be the exact foot position or the ‘style’ and flow. They can be considering what comes next and what happened before – they could be performing a memorised route or explaining as they move. None of these things can be achieved by novices. Who have to focus their full effort and working memory on simply getting the move correct.

This isn’t that revolutionary an idea. But it’s full implications on teaching can take quite a lot of unpacking.

Novice learning

With this idea of a novice learner now firmly ingrained in our heads – it should be no surprise to anyone that optimal learning for novices is a little different from more advanced learners. Remember, not everyone who turns up to your class for the first time will be a complete novice learner – as many people have other domain specific knowledge from other sports or even childhood play that is immediately applicable to Parkour. But it’s not uncommon for a completely discombobulated individual to walk in your door. Someone with no ability to jump and land with their feet together or hold weight in their arms.

If you treat your beginners like experts, the novice learners in the group are immediately at a disadvantage. Those with applicable knowledge can act like experts – they will pick skills up quickly and even those with only a little background knowledge will be able to muddle through. But for those without a reference point – it can be completely overwhelming. A key problem here is that while the novice learner may go through the motions – they can completely fail to learn anything from the experience. Some of my early students describe just turning up to class as being so completely overwhelming that they didn’t remember any of the moves afterward for the first few months and the only thing bringing them back was a bloody minded determination to improve.

Surely there must be a better way?

Of course there is. These novice learners simply require a different approach to learning than the more adept students.


Flexible and Inflexible knowledge

This concept requires a moment of honesty and culpability. I have, until recently, always advocated teaching generic concepts and then invited students to ‘play’ with them – expecting them to discover things for themselves and then explaining the movement intricacies as they find them. This style of teaching is very appropriate for those with some knowledge of how to move. But can be overwhelming and difficult for novices.

‘Inflexible’ knowledge is a concept that only applies in a single situation. In this one situation I do this one move to solve the problem. A great example of inflexible knowledge would be an algorithm on a Rubik’s cube or memorising the 17 times table.

Inflexible knowledge is easy to acquire for either a novice or an expert but crucially, novices rarely see more than the surface structure. How this specific move can solve this specific problem. While an expert may be able to take and apply this knowledge in unusual manners, for instance, being able to mirror or alter the Rubik’s cube algorithm to solve a different problem or understanding that the 17 times table is simply the 10 and 7 times tables added together and therefore being able to recite it without requiring memorisation.

Flexible knowledge are more general ideas that can be applied to many different situations. Sticking with Rubik’s cubes, the F2L method of solving is flexible knowledge. In Parkour, knowing how to move fluidly by regulating all of your movements so that they seem to ‘flow’ together would be an example of flexible knowledge. Novices find flexible knowledge much more difficult to acquire – while experts tend to find flexible knowledge more useful and seek it out.

Once a novice has learned many different pieces of inflexible knowledge, they may be able to begin applying the knowledge in other areas – this is their first step to moving on from being novices. But the best way to begin their education is in the development of inflexible knowledge. Not more flexible concepts.

Inflexible knowledge is normally taught in an explicit and systematic manner. Asking students to copy your moves exactly; Giving specific instructions on how they should move; removing creative options or interpretation are all methods of developing inflexible knowledge. You can further help students by starting with completely broken down concepts and introducing concepts selectively one by one. Instead of starting with a route and refining it you may choose to focus on just a single vault and ask them to repeat it while offering corrective feedback and having them vocalise the thought processes they are going through ‘One hand, one foot, drive foot through the gap, place foot on ground’.

This is Load Reduction Instruction. And it advocates 5 basic principles:

  1. Reduce the difficulty of a task during initial learning
  2. Instructional support and scaffolding through the task
  3. Ample structured practice
  4. Appropriate provision of instructional feedback
  5. Independent practice, supported autonomy and guided discovery learning.

While some people worry that this sort of explicit load reduction instruction is ‘boring’ for their students, I would counter that it does not take very long if done properly. I tend to consider it part of the warm-up and don’t mind taking the time to provide it at the start of almost all of my classes. It allows me to assess the level of the students and to spot any injuries that my students are inevitably hiding from me. It also gives the novice learners all the tools they will need in order to be able to take part in the rest of the class. As you will see.

The question is, how can we integrate inflexible concepts into our sessions without reducing our lessons to rote learning that will discourage those with more ability? We need to figure out a way to differentiate. That is, allow students of different levels to practice different skills. Probably the easiest way to do this is the idea of purposeful practice.

Purposeful Practice

Purposeful practice is any activity that allows both novices and experts to engage with it. It naturally differentiates by providing repetitive structured practice for the novices but also allowing more advanced practitioners to engage in problem solving or learning of flexible concepts.

Identifying activities that provide purposeful practice is very difficult. Some key ideas are:

  1. Students must experience early success
  2. There must be plenty of opportunities to practice the key learning outcome
  3. The practice should have a purpose or outcome.
  4. Opportunities must exist for students to make connections, solve problems and think deeper
  5. The focus is on practice

It’s likely that many of our activities and drills already meet many of these criteria and it should only take some small adjustments to create strong purposeful practice activities.

Before you move into the purposeful practice drill, we begin with explicit instruction – guiding our students through our main outcome. For jumping and landing, we take a few minutes to go over good landing technique, introducing the key cues (bend knees, heels up, back straight) Make sure everyone is confident with these movements.

We then begin the purposeful practice drill. We have to craft activities that meet the needs of both novices and experts. In this case, we need the novices to continue practicing many small jumps and landings. But the experts must, within the same exercise, be able to pursue more difficult and creative activities.

A good example would be to have the area set up with a number of jumps of variable difficulty. You then ask the class to move around and find jumps they feel are appropriate for their level. Attempting to stick each jump 5 times before moving on. Here we are allowing the students to naturally differentiate. Novice students get to ‘play’ with the new movement, attempting many of the smaller jumps in the area while the more advanced students begin looking for more challenging jumps. This is a powerful and simple purposeful practice method.

There are many other ways we can build our classes and actions so that they are better suited to novices and I will pull those together in another blog post. But I’d like to finish on a question: What methods are you using right now that promote purposeful practice? I’m keen to find out how others address this idea. I’d love to pull many different examples of good purposeful practice together into a future blog and discuss their pros and cons.

Inclusive Practice  by John ‘Hedge’ Hall

Read full blog about inclusivity in 4 parts.

One thought on “Novice and Expert Learners – The impossible rift

  1. Jonathan McCarver says:

    For us games are the great equilizer that allow all skill levels to work together and figure out practical application. Almost every class ends with 10 to 15 minutes of game time from qm tag to add on or follow the leader. Novice students feel a freedom to move through the space without judging themselves and those more skilled start to see the folly of showing off.
    This has been a great read and I’ll be applying these ideas to my planning.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.