What is deliberate practice?


Steve Farndon

Steve Farndon

Fellow, Ambition Institute

Picture the scene – teachers are filing out of an after-school CPD session fired up with enthusiasm to try a new pedagogical strategy. The member of SLT leading the session has inspired them with the impact it will have on their students and the teachers are keen to get started the very next day. If you were to visit the same teachers’ classrooms a month later, however, you would be unlikely to see the new technique in evidence (Lemov, Woolway and Yezzi, 2012).

Why is this? There are a number of reasons depending on the experience of the teachers involved:

  • Early career teachers may struggle to quickly embed the many ‘unnatural’ components of teaching that are unfamiliar to them (Ball and Forzani, 2009).
  • Recently qualified teachers may struggle to use the strategy at the right time because of the interactive and unpredictable nature of the classroom (Grossman et al., 2009).
  • More experienced teachers may struggle to overcome their pre-existing classroom habits (Feldon, 2007).

Despite the teachers having different reasons for not embedding the new strategy, the same teacher education tool can help to solve the problem – deliberate practice. The term ‘deliberate practice’ was coined by Ericsson to describe a type of practice which ‘is a highly structured activity, the explicit goal of which is to improve performance. Specific tasks are invented to overcome weaknesses, and performance is carefully monitored to provide cues for ways to improve it further’ (Ericsson et al., 1993, p. 368). He contrasts this with work – the main goal of which is to give your best performance in return for pay – something which limits experimentation and improvement. This distinction between work and deliberate practice helps to explain why teachers struggle to embed new classroom practices whilst completing the demanding work of teaching their students – their focus is elsewhere. Deliberate practice aims to allow teachers to isolate these teaching practices, rehearse them outside of the classroom and improve them through feedback.

It’s important to note, however, that deliberate practice isn’t rote repetition. The goal of deliberate practice in education is to develop ‘adaptive expertise’ – a type of expertise which prioritises flexibility over efficiency (Bransford et al., 2005) thereby allowing teachers to respond to the complex demands of the classroom environment. This is in contrast with ‘routine expertise’ which is developed through repeated practise of consistent procedures, improving efficiency but reducing flexibility.

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The focus on adaptation and flexibility has important implications for the design of deliberate practice in educational contexts. Careful thought needs to be given to what is to be practised so that it fits into a rich understanding of the work of teaching. The following ingredients are all important (Grossman, 2009):

  • Representations: Judiciously chosen representations of the new strategy – such as videos or live models – which help teachers to see what they’re aiming for. A teacher educator might share videos from different phases of teachers eliciting students’ current understanding of the process of division – helping teachers to see how questions and responses might vary depending on their students.
  • De-composition: De-composing the new strategy into component parts that can be practised in isolation which helps to make them more manageable. Teachers could practise asking individual questions in a sequence of increasing complexity.
  • Approximation: Building back towards complexity using approximations of the unpredictability of classrooms which is important maintain flexibility. A teacher educator might act in role responding with student misconceptions, giving the teacher the chance to respond to unexpected answers.

The whole cycle should form the basis of a dialogue between teacher educator and teacher where decisions are analysed and unpicked to ensure that the focus remains on adaptive rather than routine expertise (Lampert et al., 2013).

By engaging in deliberate practice – either in small groups during whole school CPD, or in one on one instructional coaching sessions – teachers can be supported to translate new theoretical knowledge into their classrooms. The role of the teacher educator in this is vital and challenging, focusing on the right aspects of teaching, building a supportive culture and offering high quality feedback are all considerations. The guide written by our Teacher Education Fellows is therefore a fantastic resource to support teacher educators in this important work.

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