Deliberate practice: What is it and why does it matter?

Written by: Robbie Burns | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Deliberate practice is often ‘an overlooked servant’ when it comes to teacher development, but if we practise the right things, at the right time and in the right way then it is a key CPD tool. In this two-part article, Robbie Burns explains what it’s all about...

On the football pitch, in the surgery room, in the classroom, and in a thousand other places, you can work incredibly hard without getting very far. You could run all day in boots and shin pads but without skill, it is not the ball you will be chasing.

Likewise, without years of relentless training in a specialist field of medicine, surgical scissors and a scapula are no better than a knife and fork. And we know, in the classroom, being hard-working as a teacher is only a slice of the story of what it means to be effective.

Complex endeavours of all kinds, athletic or professional, require high-levels of skill. Teaching is no exception. Yet in education there is a lingering misconception that to “get better” at our craft, we must simply do more of it – and attend INSET.

The more teaching we have done, the better we will be. Yes, we can implement some new strategies and adapt them to suit our own style. But it is years in the classroom that makes us better. But in the midst of this hazy misconception, as Lemov writes, we have missed the chance to harness the power of an “overlooked servant … in spinning straw into gold” (Lemov et al, 2012).

And that servant he refers to is practice, deliberate practice.

What on earth is deliberate practice?

Anders Ericsson, co-author of the book Peak, maps out the terrain of a lifetime of research into what made experts in their field achieve greatness or “peak performance”.

After many years of watching and studying top-class athletes, chess players, surgeons and others in their lines of work, he came to some interesting conclusions.

First, those who were talented that he studied did have a “gift”, but it had not been given only to them. In fact, their gift has actually been given to all of us: a brain that is adaptable, flexible and able to rewire itself to unlock entirely new skills, through practice over time.

Ericsson does not deny that some have been given physical traits that will enable them to excel in particular lines of work, such as the height to play basketball, but the evidence he has gathered does not support the idea that we have predefined abilities of any kind.

His simple thesis rings true regardless of the endeavour: our adaptable brains, with focused practice, can be moulded and developed and put to work on whatever it is we may choose – as long as we practise the right things, at the right time and in the right way.

Not all practice is the same: Three types

In Ericsson’s view, those who have reached the top of their field have simply made better use of their brain’s power to be flexible and adapt. By engaging in sufficient practice over extended periods of time, they appear to be talented, whereas in fact they have simply just spent time deliberately developing their specialist skills.

But not all practice is the same. Ericsson goes on to discuss three types of practice: naïve practice, purposeful practice, and deliberate practice.

  • Naïve practice is predicated on the idea that simply by doing something over and over again, we will get better at it. This works really well for the basic elements of a craft but, over time, will not be a way to develop the skill sets needed to respond to the complexity of the classroom.
  • Purposeful practice is built on predefined goals and aims to break down the practice that is needed into small steps so that goals can be achieved. With feedback at key stages and a clear focus, this form of practice has its benefits as it is always aimed at mastering skills that you are not already able to do. In addition, purposeful practice when done well not only gathers feedback on improvement in the task itself but also on how it is being done, the process of practice if you like.
  • Deliberate practice in many ways follows the same principles of purposeful practice. The difference is that the goal is not set by individuals striving for excellence but is guided directly by the accomplishments of those who have achieved greatness in their field, the paths they took, and the methods they used. Where purposeful practice is defined by the person who is engaging within it, deliberate practice is guided by a higher plane of reference to excellence.

There is a caveat here to what has been said and its specific application to teaching. Deliberate practice is most clearly defined in fields of work that have deep clarity about the essence of their craft and where there is minimal complexity. Developing expertise in a musical instrument or performing in sports such as gymnastics, diving or athletics provide really clear frameworks and models for how to succeed and, in theory, it is not complicated to understand what great performance looks like.

Successful classroom teaching is more difficult to pinpoint. Deliberate practice of specific strategies in teaching is far more complicated to do effectively.

This raises deeper issues about the nature of performance: success in a sport like gymnastics is borne out of repetitive practice in non-complex environments where the variables are minimal. The variables in the classroom for the teacher every single day are too many to count. This makes replicating the classroom environment for meaningful practice extremely complicated.

Does this mean deliberate practice is useless in teaching? Not at all, indeed there is a body of evidence across a range of fields that suggests that experience alone does not improve performance (Ericsson, 2006). There is also emerging evidence in the field of teacher education showing that deliberate practice could be a key tool in the development of teaching (Lampert et al, 2013; Kazemi et al, 2015).

Five principles of deliberate practice

Before I explain the five principles, drawn from Deans for Impact’s (2016) Practice with Purpose: The emerging science of teacher expertise, and what they might look like in practice, it is worth first stating that quality is far better than quantity.

Simply undertaking “practice” of key teaching strategies can easily slip into “naïve practice”. Instead, it is important that practice is well-designed and if there are constraints around time and capacity, then these must be acknowledged and accounted for. It is better to build-up quantity once quality has been established.

Principle 1: Push beyond your comfort zone

Any practice that is engaged in should push teachers beyond their current experience to consider challenging contexts or strategies that will improve their practice. It is useless to practice something that is already easy or a fluent part of everyday teaching.

In context

There is a difference between practising what is “easy” and what is routine. Sometimes it is hugely beneficial to practise basic elements of everyday practice for novice and expert alike. But the important thing is to push beyond the comfort zone in these instances.

For example, practising greetings at the door of the classroom in the morning with students who are struggling to regulate their emotions, or, when the class is being noisy and not following instructions – these are the sorts of things that push teachers beyond their comfort zone.

Principle 2: Define specific goals

Practice should be focused on specific, small-step aspects of teaching. These should be linked to goals that are specific, measurable and of course achievable.

In context

Because teaching is deeply complicated, any deliberate practice that takes place will naturally have a slightly removed feel to it. And this is okay. In many ways, deliberate practice in teaching is trying to extract a specific aspect of teaching from the complex whole and then going over and over it, considering the range of options, scenarios and problems that may occur.

In many ways, by breaking down the complex into the simple during a deliberate practice session, we allow teachers to have the space, time, and opportunity to discuss the range of scenarios and their responses to them, in to help us make better decisions.

Principle 3: Intensify the focus

Linked to the principle above, it is often helpful for an aspect of teaching practice to be focused on in lots of detail; this can be done by watching video of teachers, seeing live models, and then practising in pairs or triads over and over again.

In context

Honing in on specific aspects of teaching practice, such as entry routines, giving whole-class feedback, explanations, teaching vocabulary and so on provides great moments for teachers to improve what they are doing. By isolating teaching into small-steps, these can then be focused on intensely, looking at a range of scenarios and ways to improve what goes on. This is far better than having to ask teachers to practise an entire lesson or multiple strategies. By streamlining the number of things that teachers practise, it is possible to make progress in key areas.

Principle 4: Respond to feedback

Differentiating deliberate practice from simply purposeful practice is the fact that there is someone able to give you feedback there and then so that you can improve what you do straight away. This boosts the development process and is particularly useful for novice teachers. High-quality deliberate practice will include feedback that moves learning forwards at regular intervals.

In context

In small groups, pairs or triads, great feedback can be given and lots of practice can be done. Within a supportive culture this can be possible, but it takes time to build this and might be best primarily given by the leader of the session to model how feedback ought to be given and how it can move the learning of all colleagues forward.

Principle 5: Develop a mental model

To be able to monitor and self-regulate learning, teachers need clear mental models and representations of what success looks like. By having a clear idea of what success looks like from the outset, teachers can then consider where their performance is currently as they move towards their goals and respond to the feedback they have been given.

In context

It is important that those who lead deliberate practice are able to model the strategy with colleagues and also provide video footage to support the development of strong mental models. Once these are in place, teachers are unlikely to need as much input from their peers to support their development.

Next time

The second part of this article (which has now published) will unpack how we have been implementing this in my own setting as a leader of teaching.

Further information & resources

  • Deans for Impact: Practice with Purpose: The emerging science of teacher expertise, 2016:
  • Ericsson: The influence of experience and deliberate practice on the development of superior expert performance, in The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, Cambridge University Press, 2006.
  • Ericsson, Krampe, & Tesch-Romer: The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance, Psychological Review (100,3), 1993.
  • Ericsson & Pool: Peak: Secrets from the new science of expertise, Bodley Head, 2016.
  • Kazemi et al: Getting inside rehearsals: Insights from teacher educators to support work on complex practice, Journal of Teacher Education (67, 1), 2016:
  • Lampert et al: Keeping it complex: Using rehearsals to support novice teacher learning of ambitious teaching, Journal of Teacher Education (64,3), 2013:
  • Lemov, Woolway & Yezzi: Practice Perfect: 42 rules for getting better at getting better, Jossey-Bass, 2012.

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