Implementing deliberate practice as part of CPD: A case study

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

Effective teacher development involves practising the right things, at the right time and in the right way then it is a key CPD tool. In part two of his look at deliberate practice, Robbie Burns explains how his school has implemented this approach

In the first part of this two-part article, I attempted to provide a rationale for deliberate practice being an important part of teacher development. In part two, I offer a case study of how we have developed deliberate practice, learning from some mistakes along the way. Just before I dive in, I will quickly outline what deliberate practice is.

Deliberate practice is specific training activities, designed by a leader to specifically improve aspects of performance through repetition, feedback and further refinement (Ericsson & Lehman, 1996).

The difference between simply doing something over and over again and even what we might call “purposeful practice”, 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. It involves feedback – and structured elements of success criteria, like playbooks, can support this.

It would be easy for me to write a “how to” guide, or “five steps” to successful implementation of deliberate practice, but this would hide the problems I faced as a leader when trying to implement it well.

Instead, I hope to showcase how you ought not to implement deliberate practice first, so you don’t make the same mistakes that I did. Then, I will articulate what is working for us so far...

How not to do deliberate practice

My first attempt at integrating deliberate practice into our teacher development was to dedicate an hour of staff meeting time at the end of our wider cycle to it.

My reasoning was that staff had had plenty of input on new strategies, had worked with instructional coaches, and had had a go by themselves in classes – therefore they should be able to just “do” deliberate practice together if they have been given a clear process to follow. I decided I would gently monitor the time staff spent practising.

This didn’t work for a few reasons. First, staff didn’t push themselves beyond their comfort zone (principle one from the first article). Because they were not being led to greater insights and their feedback was not focused enough, they slipped into going through the motions. This was not laziness; it was because of the newness of the activity and not having a facilitator there to drive them forwards.

Second, staff had not been shown clear models. I realised that because they did not have a clear goal or “mental representation” of what it looked like (principle five), they were unable to know whether they were successful or not. This led to staff not being able to intensify the focus (principle three) in the right way.

Third, the practice was not focused enough on a goal. I gave colleagues too long to do deliberate practice and not enough clarity.

Of course, there were some staff who were very diligent and in fact many staff benefitted from the discussion about their practice during their session. But crucially, it was not the best use of time and did not meet the criteria for what might be considered deliberate practice.

One thing this did achieve, though, was to normalise the idea of practice being part of CPD. I found that after we had had an initial exposure to practice, I was able to integrate it in small ways into other CPD sessions to make sure that practice became part of the way we developed teaching collaboratively. This was an important first step: building a culture where practice with colleagues is an okay thing to do.

How deliberate practice ought to be done

So, learning from this experience, I went back to the drawing board. Questions played out in my mind about what the best approach could be. How could we capitalise on the culture that we had been building around deliberate practice? How could we make sure that we utilised the time we had more effectively and also ensure teachers were actually improving because of the sessions they were engaging in?

In terms of the principles I had not adhered to in my planning, I noticed that I hadn’t fully defined the specific goals for my colleagues, which then meant that I would not have been able to intensify the focus and enable them to respond to feedback well.

Furthermore, I noted that I had not provided them with clear enough models about how they could be successful. I decided that I would plan more carefully around these principles to ensure that what we would be doing would be more precise.

I also decided to change the time of when we did deliberate practice. Staff meeting time was not necessarily the problem, it was more the pace at which it was being done and the better utilisation of resources that was key.

We realised that actually there was a 25-minute window of time during assembly on a Friday that we could use with staff. We decided we would use this on a rotation basis, working with staff in small mixed year groupings.

Leading deliberate practice: Planning and session design

With these structural changes in mind, I then planned deliberate practice in line with the Deans for Impact principles (2016), along with a thorough reading of Ambition Institute’s Deliberate Practice Handbook (Fletcher-Wood & Farndon, 2021). Here’s an example of my planning for this:

Planning for a deliberate practice 25-minute session

Principle 1: Push beyond staff comfort zone: This session considered exit routines with the aim of sharpening the precision of this teaching strategy, to “ease” colleagues into deliberate practice, and to push them by including complex behaviours for discussion and practice.

Principle 2: Define specific goals: To enable teachers to know how to respond to students who are too slow to follow the routine and explore possible strategies to rectify this promptly.

Principle 3: Intensify focus: Provide short discussion, alongside feedback after deliberate practice, about how we would make this practice specific to our classes and the needs of students who might struggle with consistent exit routines.

Principle 4: Respond to feedback: Integrate moments directly after deliberate practice for staff to either re-practice or reflect on how they would do it better next time if time is tight.

Principle 5: Develop a mental model: Include a brief video example and live example so that staff have clear mental representation of what and how to do the exit routine.

Session structure

The session was structured as follows (this does not include the rationale or explanation of what deliberate practice is as this was done previously in the year).

  • Explanation of goal for the session: Description of what we will achieve in this session and sharing how we will do this
  • Video model: One minute long with explanation of extra “intensifying the focus” element of working with students who do not fully meet expectations.
  • Live model (using staff as class): Live model from session leader – no narrative.
  • Commentary on live model: Short explanation from session leader on how this exemplified the criteria.
  • Teacher practice and then feedback for all colleagues: Rounds of practice for each member of staff, making sure that each receives feedback. If time allows, enable them to practice again, acting on feedback.
  • Session end revisiting goal: Revisiting the goal that has been set and explaining how this might be implemented in practice.

What has been the impact?

The results of this more regular, short session format has been greater focus from teaching staff and more consistent quality of core teaching practice across the school.

Since the session has been shorter, there has been an in-built urgency and we have been forced to keep the main thing the main thing: improving teaching practice in small steps and working collaboratively to do this. Because this simple session structure stays pretty much the same each week, it means staff can be fully focused on developing the aspect of their practice at hand and not on negotiating complex tasks.

Through quality-assurance we have conducted, there is also a noticeable impact on the quality of teaching in the things that we have practised together. Because staff have had the chance to practise something, receive feedback and also watch their colleagues, building habits in key areas has been made easier.

There is more work to be done, of course, but with a session structure and regular time slot like this, we are ready to scale up the work we are doing and move forwards with further development.

Further information & resources

  • Deans for Impact: Practice with Purpose: The emerging science of teacher expertise, 2016:
  • Ericsson & Lehmann: Expert and exceptional performance: Evidence of maximal adaptation to task constraints, Annual Review of Psychology (47), 1996.
  • Fletcher-Wood & Farndon: Deliberate practice in teacher education: A handbook, Ambition Institute, September 2021:

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