• Sean Grace

Is Frustrated Learning Key To Building Creative Problem Solving Skills?

As a classically trained musician I was taught that repetition is the mother of learning. Drill, repeat, drill, repeat, ad infinitum. I would spend hours upon hours diligently practicing etudes, concerto parts and orchestral pieces over and over until I was no longer conscious of the activity. This type of targeted exercise would train my muscle memory and was well suited for the discipline of performing classical music. But is this method of learning also beneficial for the development of critical thinking, inventiveness and creative problem solving?

In David Epstein’s insightful book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, he explores how humans (and all primates) acquire knowledge, cultivate mastery and build intelligence. Citing several studies on secondary school mathematics classes from Japan to Germany to the U.S., he shows how slower, more frustrating learning methods produce more durable and flexible knowledge than fast and easy.

Epstein says U.S. students tend to perceive math not as a system but rather as a set of procedures and memorized formulas whereas Japanese students tend to learn math more conceptually by using critical thinking and by “making connections”. U.S. teachers tend to teach math by prescribing rules, steps, hints and formulas, which he argues, like drill and repeat, blunt critical thinking and creative problem solving. Japanese teachers hold back on hint-giving, focus on general concepts and at times spend an entire class on one equation, much to the exasperation of students.

Epstein presents other examples of how slow and frustrated learning builds critical thinking skills and how the more contexts in which something is learned, the more the learner creates abstract models for solving complex problems. Learners then become better at applying their knowledge to situations they’ve never seen before, which in my view is the essence of creative intelligence and the innovative mindset.

Repetition may be the mother of memory, but it’s not the mother of deep learning. Research shows that repetition is less important than struggle. There’s a technique in music and sports practice called “interleaving”, or distributed practice, which is the idea that time spent practicing a particular sequence or technique should be limited and mixed with a variety of different and even random practice segments. Interleaving is the antithesis of the more conventional “blocked practice” method which emphasizes long sequences of drill, repeat, drill, repeat. Randomizing your practice segments forces the brain, and muscles, to struggle more by not falling into predictable patterns of repeatable executions. And for the building of knowledge that is flexible, it should be practiced under varied and random conditions. The knowledge forged from slow, frustrated learning seeds the ground for better creative thinking.

While rote learning, where the priority is on single-topic, drill-repeat practice, is great for short term memory and same day testing, it’s a poor method for building long term competency and an innovative mindset. The best learning road is slow, frustrating and varied and doing poorly up front is often essential for better performance later.

So when embarking on acquiring a new skill, embrace the frustration and the struggle. Know that a slow process in the beginning not only increases competency later on but more importantly helps build critical thinking and creative problem solving skills that last a lifetime.


Sean Grace is a consultant specializing in creative communications, media production, leadership, learning & talent development. Let’s connect at www.gracemediaworks.com