How Deliberate Practice Can Help You Become a WordPress Expert

I’m a keen advocate of the idea that anyone can learn a new skill, if they’re sufficiently motivated.

And if, like me, you work in the world of web development, you’ll need to learn new skills all of the time.

Ours is an industry that never sits still. Whether it’s a new tool, a major update to WordPress that could change the way you work (Project Gutenberg, anyone?) or a shift in your own professional direction, being able to pick up new skills will help you keep ahead of the industry and do your job more effectively.

But when faced with so much new material, how do you learn? How do you identify what you need to learn about? And what method should you use to go about acquiring those news skills or knowledge?

In this post I’ll try to help you work your way through the minefield that is personal development within the WordPress sphere. I’ll outline a programme you can use to develop WordPress expertise, while keeping time to carry on earning a living as well as preparing yourself for the future – not to mention essential time for resting (more important than you may think) and having a personal and social life, too.

WPMU DEV Academy home page
The WPMU Dev Academy is a great place to learn

Learning Theory – What It is and How It’s Changed

Understanding how learning works and how you can learn as much as possible in as little time as possible will help you design your own learning plan to develop your WordPress skills. Here are some of the methods you could consider.

Learning Styles

When I studied occupational psychology almost three decades ago (ahem), the prevailing learning theories were different from what they are now. The dominant theory was learning styles, developed by Honey and Mumford in the 1980s, which divides people into four groups:

  • Activists
  • Theorists
  • Reflectors
  • Pragmatists

We were taught that learning styles should be paramount when designing learning programmes. This meant taking into account the learning styles of the individual as well as their personal preferences and tastes.

So for years I told people to adapt the way they learned to their learning style. If you’re a theorist, spend time working out why something is the way it is; if you’re a reflector, think about it a lot… and so forth.

But research has provided little evidence that adapting learning to your personal style is the best way to go. So what should you be doing instead?

Experiential Learning

Another approach is experiential learning, which is all about learning through experience. So if you want to learn how to do something, just keep on doing it. This is based on the skill, rather than the individual – the practice you do will have nothing to do with your preferences, and everything to do with what you’re learning. For many more years, I wrote training courses this way, where people were given the opportunity to practice a new skill rather than watching someone else do it or just thinking about it. And for my money, it beats both of those methods.

If you’ve heard of the 10,000 hours theory, popularised by Malcolm Gladwell, well, this is  what that looks like in action. It’s a valid idea, and an appealing one. If you want to learn to code, just write lots of code. You’ll get better, surely?

Well, maybe not.

I’ve been learning to touch type on and off for the last three years or so. I’ve been doing this by completing various typing exercises online. My accuracy rate is low and my speed isn’t much better. All I’m doing is practing the same inaccurate method over and over again – typing badly, hitting the wrong keys again and again. I haven’t taken the time to go back to the beginning and reflect on what I need to do to get it right every time.

If you’re using experience to learn WordPress, whether that be using WordPress as  blogger or business owner, or learning to write code, this sort of practice will only get you so far.

Deliberate Practice

More recent studies have shown that deliberate practice will turn you into a more effective learner. This focuses on what you are learning and how it’s done well (or even perfectly).

Deliberate practice incorporates experience (practice) with reflection and planning (the deliberate part). Instead of just sitting down and writing lots of code, you do some extra things:

  • Identify what specific skills you need to learn
  • Identify how they are done correctly, by watching videos, reading tutorials or via courses such as our own WordPress Academy
  • Identify exercises or projects that will help you practise those skills
  • Do the practice – watching out for anything you get wrong
  • Check your work, get feedback from others, and identify what you need to improve
  • Identify exercises to develop those skills where you went wrong
  • And so on…

In this way, you use your 10,000 hours (or less – it really isn’t a magic number) in a way that’s more targeted – and will get you better results. Anders Ericsson, a proponent of deliberate practice, argues in this video that a coach will help you with this. But you may not have access to a coach. Later in this post I’ll help you find ways around that.

This will help you focus on those skills where you need to get better, and take the time to get things right. Think of a basketball player practising. Do they spend hours just playing lots of games against their teammates? No. Top players will spend hours shooting hoops or practicing other moves. Deliberately, and in a way that’s targeted at improving the areas where they most need it. Top musicians work in much the same way.

Applying This To Your Own Learning

So what does this all mean for you?

Let me outline a learning program you could use if you’re setting out to develop your WordPress skills.

First You Have to Commit

Deliberate practice is hard. If you’re having fun, you’re not pushing yourself. Tackling a personal project may be fun, and it may help you develop a few skills. But it won’t give you the targeted practice you need to develop expertise.

So, commit to finding time and devoting mental energy. Make learning a habit – something you do a bit of every day.

Find an Expert (or Set of Experts) to Help You

This may go against the idea of being self-taught – but these experts are not going to be your teachers. Instead they are going to be your guides and (if you’re lucky) your mentors.

If you can find one person who is prepared to support you and give you feedback, then that’s fantastic. Value that person’s time and don’t expect too much from them. If you can’t find a mentor, then follow some experts online. We have plenty of experts writing here on the wpmu dev blog and there are lots more WordPress experts blogging and hanging out on the support forums.

If you do look for an online expert or experts, don’t aim too high. If you’re just starting out with coding, find someone whose expertise is appropriate to that. You don’t want to be reading blog posts about object oriented PHP when you’re coding your first theme.

Our guide to career-boosting resources will help you find some sources of expertise, and your local WordPress meetup group and/or WordCamp is a great source.

Wordcamp central website

Identify the Skills

Take time to identify exactly what skills you need to develop. I recommend breaking this down into chunks and tackling them one at a a time. Resources like this blog and our Academy will help you with that, as well as the WordPress codex.

Identify an Activity

Now you know what you need to learn, you need to identify how you’ll learn it. Find or design an activity that will help you practice those skills. This might be following along with one of our Academy courses, creating your first theme, or whatever is appropriate for your level of expertise.

It has to be something you can tackle right now with guidance and support, maybe in the form of books, videos, blog posts or courses.

Do the Practice

Now it’s time to do some practice. Notice that I didn’t let you dive into this straightaway!

Set aside a regular chunk of time each day. This might not be a long time – just half an hour is OK. As long as you commit to it. It’s better to do a little each day than to cram in a load on one day. That’s because your learning will be consolidated every day as you come back to the task, and every night as you sleep. Sleep helps you by letting your brain process and store what you learned.

Review and Get Feedback

If you can get feedback on your practice from someone else, do so. They will be able to see what you got right and what you need to improve. I always learn a lot from having other developers review my code, and it can be quite eye-opening!

If you don’t have a mentor, you may be able to find people on the WordPress support forums or on stackexchange who are happy to review your code. But beware: you need to be sure they know what they’re talking about. Having your work checked by someone who isn’t an expert will just reinforce your mistakes.

If you can’t do that, then review your work yourself. Check that it works as it should do, that it’s fast and efficient (if it’s code), or that it gets positive feedback from readers (if it’s a blog post, for example).

Stackexchange WordPress website

If you are soliciting feedback from others, ask them to be specific and constructive. Vague or fawning feedback will get you nowhere.

Act on the Review

Now you know where you need to make improvements. Find an activity that will help you practise those particular skills. For example if your CSS isn’t great, then set yourself a challenge to add more complex styling to a site you’re working on, or to recreate a site you like.

Pepper in some opportunities to consolidate the skills you’ve already developed as well, or you’ll forget them. Even the stuff you did well needs to be rehearsed.

Repeat – Forever

Now repeat the whole process. Get feedback on your second set of practice, or review it yourself. Identify any remaining elements you don’t quite understand or can’t get right all the time. And find more activities that will help you practice those. While at the same time not neglecting your wider skill set.

Once you’ve become proficient in this set of skills, you can add to them. This might mean greater breadth (adding a wider range of skills to your armoury) or greater depth (getting better at what you’re already learning and doing it in more advanced ways). Whichever that is, make sure you don’t stop practicing the skills you started with and consolidating those at the same time. You just need to set aside more time for the new skills and the ones you haven’t mastered yet.

This will be a never-ending process. If you want to be a WordPress professional, or want to use WordPress to support another career, there will always be new things to learn. Keep following this model and you’ll stay on top of your skills.

Deliberate Practice Will Help Your Continued Learning

By adopting the model I’ve described above, you can learn and consolidate new skills without letting bad habits slip in and harm your learning. If you commit to taking time out every day to learn new WordPress skills, and to being honest with yourself when reviewing your progress, then you’ll develop expertise more quickly than you might expect.

It won’t always be easy – nothing worth doing ever is – but it will be effective. Good luck with your learning!

Rachel McCollin
How will you use this program to develop your WordPress skills? Let us know in the comments!