Deliberate Practice

Deliberate practice can be the difference between average and expert performance. Anders Ericcson is one of several scholars who have contributed to our knowledge of optimal performance. He proposes that the chief indicator of future success is not innate ability, such as IQ, but the quality of practice. “Experts are made, not born.” (Ericcson, “The Making of an Expert,” Harvard Business Review 2007). As educators, our students should be placed on a path toward success, and deliberate practice provides insights into how we help our students along the path of achievement.

All classrooms and every subject should be a breeding ground for deliberate practice. Hear me correctly, though. Not all students (and maybe none of our students) in a given subject will go on to become experts in the field. However, they can acquire the core skills of deliberate practice in every subject, so that whatever path they choose, they can apply these skills in the pursuit of excellence. By incorporating these skills in my history class, for instance, I may expect to see my students apply deliberate practice as musicians, journalists, or mathematicians.

There are four essential components to deliberate practice. All of them are necessary if one is to see gains in a discipline.

Repeat, Repeat, Repeat

The first component of deliberate practice is repeated rehearsal of a skills. Finding the right frequency is key here. Too much practice on a given skill can be just as detrimental as not practicing enough. It would be counterproductive to spend hours a day practicing scales on the piano, perhaps causing injury to the hands and wrists. How many scales ought to be done? Just enough to see improvement in a focused area; maybe the fluidity of finger movement.

The best way to get the frequency right is to set up a regular appointment to work on a given skill. Our class schedules often provide daily or weekly opportunities to drill down into a set of skills. Helping our students manage their out-of-school course work, though, may help them find optimal results. Same place, same time, same subject.

We need to be careful with this first component. It is all too easy to set up high frequency and think we are accomplishing something, when in fact all we are doing is a long series of empty work. Thus, the second through fourth components must be present within the rehearsal times we set up.

Break It Down

Any skill can be divided into many smaller skills. Even the simple act of running can be broken down into components such as foot strike, kick, forward lean, hip rotation, head position, and arm swing to name a few. In my hermeneutics class, I break down for my students various constituent parts of the act of reading.

The second component of deliberate practice is breaking down concepts and skills into smaller pieces. Those smaller pieces can then be isolated and practiced with focused attention, energy and motivation.

Imagine being told to improve your writing. One could write more, lots more. But without first breaking down the task of writing into smaller parts, writing will be a frustrating endeavor with little improvement occurring. Instead, bad habits are likely to be reinforced. Being guided, however, toward making more concrete choices for your nouns, or using stronger active verbs, or expanding your vocabulary, or varying your sentence length gives the author specific, actionable items to work on each time writing is practiced. More can be accomplished through focused attention on a small part of the whole, than by trying to lift the whole by brute force.

Practically speaking, this means that in our regularly scheduled practice session, a choice needs to be made as to what specific sub-skill will be practiced. As teachers, we can provide for our students a specific area to work on for a given problem set or reading exercise. There are some master skills specific to each subject that have outsized impact on that area of knowledge. For instance, all of us have heard the math teacher encourage her students to show their steps for each problem. That’s because this is a master skill. Finding the few skills that enable a student to see massive improvement in a subject is a sure way to cultivate interest and participation within a class.

Best Effort

In order to get the most out of practice, one must actively engage the will. When you picture an elite athlete working on drills, their level of intensity is what sets them apart from the weekend warrior joining a pickup game of soccer or basketball. Arnold Schwartzenegger once described his process for building muscle. He would intensely focus on a specific muscle before and during a lift. There was a mind/body connection made that enabled him to see significant gains as a bodybuilder. To see gains as a scholar, musician or athlete, this kind of intense connection needs to be cultivated.

This is the hardest, but most necessary component of deliberate practice. Will power, or motivation, can be weak in our students. Many authors have made the analogy between will power and muscle. Our wills can be trained, so that we develop stronger motivation. But we can also use up our strength as the day goes on. We can help our students to increase their will power, but we also need to be realistic about how long we can expect them to apply themselves with intensity. My suggestion is that episodes of deliberate practice occur in the classroom. As the adult in the room, we teachers (hopefully) have greater will power and can set the tone for the level of intensity we expect from our students. We become the coach motivating them through their mathematics drills, their writing exercises, their scales and arpeggios. The goal is for them to acquire the ability to reach this level of intensity on their own, but that might take time to internalize. But if they see results in the application of will power leading to gains in the subject area, the intrinsic reward will start to drive them.

Aim High

The fourth component of deliberate practice is about setting our aim at improvement. The goal is not about completing assignments or covering all the material in a class, although completion and knowledge are important in their own right. The goal really boils down to human growth. Are we improving ourselves in some area? And even more importantly, are we identifying areas where improvement can occur?

Cultivating a growth mindset in the classroom can be difficult, especially where there is undue focus on grades, or where the class is perceived as a hoop to jump through prerequisite to some other course, job or qualification. The biggest hurdle that stands in the way of a growth mindset is fear of failure. The discomfort students feel when they fail could derive from a sense of shame, pressure they’ve put on themselves or others, or an overly competitive group dynamic. However, failure is necessary in order for growth to occur. Put another way, if our students are constantly succeeding, they are probably not encountering sufficient challenge to enact growth. Returning briefly to our example of bodybuilding, the bodybuilder will repeat a lift to the point of failure — meaning they can’t make another lift — which stimulates muscle growth. We can approximate this failure/growth connection by using feedback loops in our classrooms. A feedback loop is a means of verbalizing and demonstrating a concept or skills that is either incorrect, not fully formed or could be taken to the next level. For example, showing students capitalization errors in their writing and bringing their focused attention to improving this area is a feedback loop. We can now connect them to regular practice on a discrete skill that requires their best effort. Students can be coached to find their own failures. Errors can also be anticipated before they occur. “Now class, where are we likely to make mistakes in this problem?”

Setting measurable goals is part of aiming high. We may have a long view toward perfect execution, but there may need to be incremental growth along the way. Setting these as measurable increments helps students track their own growth as well as celebrate their victories along the way (increasing motivation). If we are to learn all 100 vocabulary words by the end of the semester, maybe we set an increment of 10 per week. Runners training for their first marathon set incremental goals for the weeks of training, five miles this weekend, eight miles next weekend, get into double digits, build up to 20 miles, until one is ready to go 26.2 miles.

Now, we need to keep in mind that expert performance in the field of our subject area may not be possible for all of our students, let alone any of our students. So calibrating what it means for our students to aim high takes a deep understanding of the students in our classes. Helping them set goals is part of them internalizing how to enact deliberate practice. Remember, we are helping them acquire a transferable skill set. Our subject area is not really about our subject at all. It’s really an opportunity to practice deliberate practice. Of course, I’m overstating the case. Obviously there are standards related to history, mathematics, science, languages that need to be met. But we don’t want to be so short sighted as to think that growth in our area of knowledge is the only goal we’re aiming for.

Putting It All Together

I remember learning how to do effective practice when I was a music major. It began with committing myself to daily practice (repeat, repeat, repeat). Whenever I would mess up a measure, I would stop, and spend several moments just working the fingering of the sequence of notes (break it down). This passage was circled and repeated at intervals over the coming days. I would make sure I stopped the automatic mode of just making it through a piece, so that I would put my whole mind and effort into these challenging passages (best effort). Each time I improved a measure, my overall performance increased. I saw results in moving up in the section (aim high). My ambitions never really took me beyond college orchestra as a performer. But I learned a transferable skill that helped me excel in other areas, such a languages, biblical studies, history, and writing.

Differentiation and Deliberate Practice

One of the challenges we face as educators is assisting students who lag behind the group or outpace the group. We usually place the laggers into extra tutoring and give the really smart kids extra work or try to accelerate their progress in that area. There’s good reason to consider these strategies. But one often unexplored strategy is to look at deliberate practice as a means to develop skills that will enable them to reflect on their own practice habits. Stragglers often lack the practice skills that will help them achieve forward movement in their studies. Instead of breaking down their workload, they become overwhelmed by the sense that they are behind their peers. Small victories can begin to build the momentum to see themselves catch up to the pack. The frontrunners can be tempted to skim the surface of their work, delighting in the thrill of gaining early access to new knowledge. Finding alternative goals to ripping through advanced levels of content, articulating goals such as perfect execution, or understanding concepts at a deeper level may help them to learn better practice habits. I’ve seen several intuitive learners come crashing down when they hit their first challenge, largely because they haven’t internalized the habits of deliberate practice.


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