Becoming a Better Teacher by ‘Deliberate Practice’

In Productivity, Teacher Improvement and Coaching by Alex Quigley22 Comments

“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who had practiced one kick 10,000 times.” Bruce Lee

When I was a young boy I dreamt of being like Bruce Lee. He had complete mastery over his body and mind. He was a genius who could also beat anybody up, if required…crucial for a young, bespectacled light-weight like me! I remember owning a book on ‘Hung Ga Kung Fu‘ – only, I never did commit myself to the training. For one, no-one wanted to grapple with me or be repeatedly kicked a thousand times over, and secondly, my big brother was, well…just too big!

After dabbling with a few thousand hours of football practice over the years, without expertise, the next great passion became the pursuit of becoming an expert teacher. This is what brings me back around to Bruce Lee twenty years later. His quotation above about ‘deliberate practice‘ has many ramifications for what our professionalism means and how we must work in schools to improve if we want to become experts and great teachers.

hung-ga-twelve-bridges

The ‘Twelve Bridges’ of ‘Hung Ga Kung Fu’ provide excellent behaviour management poses for the discerning teacher!

Many people know the many great quotations about effort trumping ability; about genius resulting from resilient persistence, rather than innate ability. The mystique that attends the genius attributed to the likes of Bruce Lee (I remember the stories about his fabled ‘one inch punch’ or his superhuman flexibility) is stripped away and the theory of ‘10,000 hours’ of practice presents us with an all too human answer to what becoming an expert means – simply lots of effort! Although more nuanced scientific evidence deems the epic 10,000 as an average, with research proving 3,000 hours can establish expert status in a specific domain, such as chess – see the research here).

A famous example of the popular 10,000 hours hypothesis is in Malcolm Gladwell’s enjoyable narrative, based loosely on the theme of ‘deliberate practice‘ , entitled ‘Outliers‘. Gladwell takes a more anecdotal, magazine-style approach; whereas the likes of Geoff Colvin grapple with a more rigorous on ‘deliberate practice’, which is much more specific and complex a narrative than Gladwell suggests. A good example is this golfing analogy from Colvin:

“For example: Simply hitting a bucket of balls is not deliberate practice, which is why most golfers don’t get better. Hitting an eight-iron 300 times with a goal of leaving the ball within 20 feet of the pin 80 percent of the time, continually observing results and making appropriate adjustments, and doing that for hours every day – that’s deliberate practice.” Geoff Colvin, ‘What It takes to be Great’

Interesting elements of the research used by Colvin, from K Anders Ericsson deserve a reading and could be compressed into nuggets like this:

“Across many domains of expertise, a remarkably consistent pattern emerges: The best individuals start practice at earlier ages and maintain a higher level of daily practice. Moreover, estimates indicate that at any given age the best individuals in quite different domains, such as sports and music, spend similar amounts of time on deliberate practice. In virtually all domains, there is evidence that the most important activity— practice, thinking, or writing—requires considerable effort and is scheduled for a fixed period during the day. For those exceptional individuals who sustain this regular activity for months and years, its duration is limited to 2-4 h a day, which is a fraction of their time awake.”The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance’, K. Anders Ericsson, Ralf Th. Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Romer

Now, undertaking a vast amount of practice does not confer expertise, otherwise we would have moved towards some practice driven master-race long ago! A whole host of other factors weigh into the mix to complicate the rightly lauded power of effort. Factors such as the underpinning motivational qualities and perseverance of the individual; the quality of coaching; the innate cognitive ability of the person and the capacity of their working memory to retain key information. These are just some of the complications that muddy the narrative somewhat. Yet, they may muddy the water, but they do not eliminate the big fish of the idea: that the simple but very powerful idea that ‘deliberate practice‘ can have a transformative impact on performance for teachers and beyond.

Also, it is crucial to note that just turning up for work and bashing out a few lessons is not true ‘deliberate practice‘ either. ‘Deliberate practice‘ has some very specific qualities which differentiate it from mere ‘practice‘, or what we typically deem ‘work‘. This is what is key for schools when aiming for a successful Performance Development system for example. ‘Deliberate practice‘ is not ‘mindless‘ repetition, where a teacher uses the same resource or strategy willy nilly, in a loose ‘trial and error’. It is not trying lots of fun, new resources or teaching strategies out on a pliant group. Instead, it is about a deeply reflective process, that is highly rigorous and specific.

It is therefore often slow and difficult – nothing like the ‘flow’ state articulated by the likes of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. It requires organisation and often works best as ‘disciplined inquiry’, or other such reflective process, like blogging your practice. The process undertaken is not easy – therefore discipline, the sort possessed by a rare few, is paramount. The ‘flow’ may come later, with mastery of an aspect of teaching for example, if at all.

Too often in education we expect that if we adapt to find something that will establish that ‘flow’ for students they will fly, but the reality is that we are doing them a disservice. if we never make them persevere with the struggle and failure of undertaking difficult work they will never have the ‘grit’ to be true experts in anything. We need to train ourselves, and our students in what W. B. Yeat’s poetically described as “the fascination of what is difficult” if we are to last the course. It takes time and effort – some deep habit forming actions – with a strong degree of resilience to plough through the many failures on the path to mastery.

Here is my simplified idea of some of the key steps in the process:

Key Steps for Successful ‘Deliberate Practice’

1. Define the time and place High quality ‘deliberate practice’ requires a careful consideration of time and place (just like good habit forming). Consider: when is the best time to reflect? When are you best focused and for how long? Define the time and place specifically. Be consistent and persistent about the habit. Ericsson’s research notes that consistency is key.

2. Research your evidence thoroughly, then define, and refine, your focus. Share with a coach/critical friend Then there is the reflective thinking about the specific focus of the practice (intelligent research is key here). Have you researched all the evidence? Do you know your Hattie from your ‘Brain Gym’? Then each skill needs to be broken down into sharply defined elements. The focus is then entirely on that one minor element – over and over, as Bruce Lee describes. As Dylan Wiliam, rather paradoxically stated, “we must stop trying to do too many good things.” Our focus must be narrow – be it asking great questions; establishing rigorous peer feedback etc. – otherwise we will not be able to make exacting improvements. Too much ‘Performance Development’ is over ambitious, has too many strands, or is has distractions divorced from our core pedagogy.

3. Record your evidence and your reflections systematically. Have an open and frank dialogue with your coach on a consistent basis Then it becomes a case of recording that practice (the aforementioned action research and blogging is ideal). It could be an individual blog, or a departmental or school blog. It can be better when you are part of a group whom are willing to give you focused, supportive criticisms, but sometimes that is impractical for the degree of close coaching required. The audience and feedback to a blog can also be very useful to the process. What is important is that we record continually to give structure to our reflections.

If we leave our responses down to memory we may well fall prey to confirmation bias i.e. we will believe what we want to believe! This is far from easy in the hurly burly of the day job, so school leaders would do well to facilitate as much of this time as possible, providing resources such as time (all important), the technical support and high quality coaches. Good quality time: such as your coach observing your practice (it could be as short as five minutes) and giving you very specific feedback; or observing experts, within and without of your school, needs to happen weekly. Not only that, to make significant improvements the teacher must be willing to devote more time than could be realistically allocated within school hours. As Ron Berger states, an ‘ethic of excellence’ must be cultivated.

4. Share, reflect and repeat…and repeat… No-one said this process would be easy – becoming an expert in anything takes a grinding determination for betterment. Some people simply don’t care enough to face the difficulty – this is true in all professions and walks of life. Repetition is dull, recording evidence lacks the ‘sexiness’ of the performing act! It is why so few people become true experts. As teachers, we often enjoy the trialling of a new strategy – by the fifth attempt at improving the strategy, the inclination to undertake more student voice or record more summative evidence becomes a burden we simply let fall aside. This is where the discipline of step 1 comes in; as well as the responsibility to your coach and/or wider audience in step 2 and 3.

Coaching in Schools

Coaching is becoming a much more common phenomenon in schools. It is linked to ‘Performance Development’, but that link is problematic. Whilst performance targets are linked to career advancement, we will always naturally become risk averse; falling back upon more well established practices to meet the performance goals. This conservative response doesn’t encourage the attitude needed for the real development of expert skills. Not only that, the best laid plans of ‘Performance Development’ targets at the beginning of the school year often lack the flexibility required for really effective ‘deliberate practice‘. We become determined to ‘pass’ our ‘Performance Development’ target, regardless of whether the target itself may have become useless to our real development needs – if it ever was in the first place.

What schools must do, therefore, is carefully delineate between ‘coaching’ and ‘Performance Development’. They must coach good coaches; they must facilitate time for the deliberate practice to be observed, recorded and reflected upon. Schools must ask how they can lever this type of practice into our weekly structures. Schools must have a relentless focus upon sharing good pedagogy, whilst encouraging that sharing across the boundaries of the school gates. There is evidence to say that teachers stop developing after two or three years. That is to say, that basics of behaviour management are mastered and the basic repertoire of pedagogy is established, but then there must be a fallible ‘trial and error’ process stopping some teachers moving towards true expertise.

In our PGCE year, and our NQT year, we typically receive consistent feedback and we often exist in a state of constant reflection (often with fraught nerves and on the brink of exhaustion!). The problem is that is after the close, consistent weekly coaching process stops then we inevitably plateau as professionals. We must work on the ‘continuous’ aspect of performance development in the truest sense: each day, each week and each term.

In reality, such a focused coaching process could be costly and time consuming. The only answer is for leaders to inspire a culture where teachers undertake ‘deliberate practice’ driven by a desire for betterment; where there is some time facilitated regularly; quality training in groups on pedagogy, not time frittered away in endless meetings. As a subject leader myself, I needed to be trained out of this fallacy. I thought a good meeting was nice and broad – sorting peripheral issues – when greater focus on pedagogy was required (any meeting time is simply too precious – we must find other methods to communicate the day to day business). I also need to work much harder in making meaningful coaching time and ‘deliberate practice’ happen for all the colleagues in our faculty. I would admit to struggling to find the right process to make coaching really meaningful and transformative – more ‘deliberateness’ is still required!

In the last year, on a personal basis, my blog has been a fantastic way to reflect and perform a weekly attempt at ‘deliberate practice‘. I have formed a time and place to execute my habit, which has knocked on to me spending much more time researching and reflecting on the day job. It feels nothing like ‘work‘ in the traditional sense, but it complements my day job brilliantly. As a subject leader, it is actually hard to find time to be coached for my own classroom practice, but the willing audience for my blogs has often filled a void brilliantly, inspiring me onward.

My coaching targets have been questioning and improving feedback (the subjects of many of my blog posts). When I read this great blog by Joe Kirby here, an eloquent synthesis of Hattie, it brought me back to our opening faculty meeting this year, when we looked at those very effect sizes and started to size up our own coaching needs. My focus on questioning and honing in on quality feedback – very nearly aligned with Joe Kirby’s blog recommendations. My progress has been flawed, as such things always are.

My colleagues and I all need to work on undertaking ‘deliberate practice’ with greater consistency – even as the demands of the day job are legion – but then expertise in anything never came easy, or without considerable time and effort. Crucially, we have to want to commit that time and effort – we must keep on kicking!

 

Support resources for  ‘Deliberate Practice’:

Quite simply the link of links! http://larryferlazzo.edublogs.org/2012/07/21/the-best-resources-for-learning-about-the-10000-hour-rule-deliberative-practice/
Interesting article: http://calnewport.com/blog/2012/04/09/the-father-of-deliberate-practice-disowns-flow/
Clear and very useful blog: http://lifehacker.com/5939374/a-better-way-to-practice

 

Comments

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  8. Another insightful article. Point 1 “1. Define the time and place ” Made me immediately think of the phrase “DIRT for teachers”. I think that is vital, we started to pilot DIRT in our lessons for our students, but perhaps as you mention, we need to timetable DIRT for ourselves as teachers too. I’m going to have a go at this and let you know how I get on, probably in the form of a post on my blog.

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  17. If teachers followed your suggestions (based on the work of others you call upon and your description of professional development) for phonics and foundational literacy, we would have a total transformation of education from the youngest up.

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