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Are we even doing deliberate practice in teacher development?

In this three-part series I’m examining the interpretation and translation of the concept of ‘deliberate practice’ in teacher development. This is part two in the series.

Issue 1: Do we all mean the same thing when we’re talking about deliberate practice?

Issue 2: Is what’s happening in teacher development really ‘deliberate practice’ as defined by researchers?

Issue 3: Is deliberate practice relevant to the challenges of developing expertise in teachers? (To be explored in part 3)

In my last post I argued that the use of the term ‘deliberate practice’ in teacher development might cause more confusion than clarity.

The problem is that the same term is being used to talk about a range of differing approaches. This may reduce the sharpness and clarity of the professional conversations had by school leaders and teacher educators.

To recap: if one school leader uses the term to simply mean ‘low-stakes practice/rehearsal’ whilst another assumes that the term also encompasses ‘modelling’ and ‘feedback’, then unless these assumptions are surfaced we risk talking at cross-purposes, having inefficient and ineffective discussions, and wasting time.

My solution to this is simple. Rather than using a vague and variously-interpreted term, those leading on professional development should just say what they mean when talking about different teacher development pedagogies – be that ‘modelling’, ‘feedback’, ‘low-stakes practice’ or something else.

However, that’s not the only reason I’m uncomfortable with the widespread use of the term.

I’m also concerned that most of the ways that ‘deliberate practice’ is interpreted in the teaching sector lack alignment with the original definition that comes from the literature:

Issue 2: Is what’s happening in teacher development really ‘deliberate practice’ as defined by researchers?

How does Ericsson define deliberate practice?

As mentioned previously, the term was coined by Anders Ericsson in the 90s, in research that originally focused on the acquisition of expertise in music (a well-researched domain for expertise development).

Ericsson argued that expertise is a product not of natural talent or context, but of the amount of practice people do – particularly practice with a set of specific criteria, dubbed deliberate practice.

In a number of publications between 1992 and 2019 Ericsson strove to define the concept of deliberate practice, particularly in response to critics (e.g. Macnamara et al., 2014). Some argued that his definition fluctuated over time; he denied this (e.g. Ericsson and Harwell, 2019).

His most recent definition from 2019 seems to be the most specific and explicit – perhaps because of the aforementioned challenges by his critics – and is a useful starting point in illuminating how he defined the concept in practice.

An overview of how this most recent definition of the approach works in practice is as follows:

Adapted from Ericsson and Harwell, 2019

The first thing to note here is that, for Ericsson, deliberate practice referred specifically to ‘practice sessions’ that happen independently – i.e. in between ‘teaching sessions’.

  • For example, a musician studying at a conservatory might have practice tasks to work on certain scales in-between tutorials.
  • Or, a junior surgeon might have a set of suturing practice tasks to work on in-between teaching sessions.

And, for these independent practice sessions to be effective, Ericsson argued that deliberate practice tasks need to have a certain set of characteristics:

  • Individualised and independent
  • Well-defined goal
  • Practice activity that provides immediate feedback
  • Task allows for repeated, iterative attempts
  • Instructor/coach periodically assesses progress and refines/resets goals
Adapted from Ericsson and Harwell, 2019

With this in mind, how do these compare to way that practice-based approaches to teacher development tend to be enacted? Let’s break these down one at a time.

1. Individualised and independent

The majority of low-stakes practice that takes place in teacher development happens directly alongside someone else.

That is, in many cases a teacher educator, professional development lead or coach structures the practice session and provides live feedback, often before asking a teacher to re-practise. This bears little similarity to Ericsson’s idea of deliberate practice as an independent activity.

Is this a problem? On one hand possibly not – the reason why deliberate practice in, say, a music conservatory, tends to be individualised and independent is that it takes place outside of the limited and expensive time that students have face-to-face with their instructors.

However, this feature of the original definition is also a product of the fact that an extensive amount of practice is required to develop expertise over time. So, we might question whether a small amount of low-stakes practice in a PD session approaches the quantities of practice deemed necessary by the original literature to develop high-levels of expertise.

  • Alignment review: FAIL
  • Concern level: MODERATE/LOW
2. A well-defined goal

On one level it might feel reasonable to assert that the goal when practising a new teaching technique can be easily defined – given a new technique with a set of success criteria, the goal is simply to accurately reproduce that technique.

This might be credible for simple, heavily broken-down teaching approaches; how this works with more interactive and contingent aspects of teaching that involve responsive decision-making is less clear. How easy is to define a clear and measurable goal for running a complex and unpredictable classroom discussion, for instance?

There is a potential knock-on effect of this issue – a backwash from the desire to practise every element of classroom teaching into our very definitions of effective teaching practices. That is, there is a risk that an overt focus on low-stakes practice might skew our perception of effective teaching and learning, by leading teacher educators to overly focus on teaching approaches that can be easily broken-down, modelled and rehearsed.

There’s one more question here – how well-defined is expert teaching itself? Whilst we may (in some circumstances) be able to define a narrowly focused goal, to what extent do we have high-levels of agreement or evidence for effective teaching practices, or even the goals of education? This is something I’ll be returning to in the next post in this series.

  • Alignment review: MODERATE/FAIL
  • Concern level: HIGH/MODERATE (to be revisited in part 3)
3. Practice activity that provides immediate feedback

Most low-stakes practice in teacher development doesn’t inherently include a mechanic for the practice task itself to provide immediate feedback. However, you could argue that using a set of success criteria might allow for self-monitoring of the accuracy of practice.

Additionally, given that in most cases teacher practice happens alongside another, this particular feature of Ericsson’s model is arguably provided if the ‘other’ provides high quality feedback. And, whilst this ‘other’ is usually a teacher educator or coach, if a tightly defined and concrete set of success criteria are provided, it can be possible for this feedback to be meaningfully provided by a peer.

  • Alignment review: HIGH/MODERATE
  • Concern level: LOW
4. Task allows for repeated, iterative attempts

As previously discussed, a number of approaches to practice/rehearsal in education explicitly include repeated practice attempts.

The only barrier to this in practice is likely the time involved in conducting a number of iterative re-practice attempts. I’ll explore the time constraints on running low-stakes practice as a teacher development pedagogy in more detail in the next post in this series.

  • Alignment review: HIGH (time dependent)
  • Concern level: LOW
5. Instructor/coach periodically assesses progress and refines/resets goals

In certain settings this feature is easier to incorporate into teacher development – in instructional coaching relationships for example, coaches can set tailored goals for teachers and refine, change or reset these as appropriate.

On the other hand, in some cases deliberate practice is conducted in broader settings with larger groups of teachers, and in such cases the scope for individualised goals to be set – much less periodically evaluated and reset – is far more limited.

Whilst not wanting to underplay the risk of this downside, the question of whether group-level PD for teachers can account for the needs of individuals is a problem larger than the domain of deliberate practice. In fact, I’d suggest that the ability of teacher educators to tailor training inputs to both the needs and levels of expertise of teachers is one of the greatest challenges to our work, and one that is often ignored because it simply feels too complicated to solve at a scale greater than 1-2-1 coaching.

  • Alignment review: HIGH (for coaching); LOW (for group PD)
  • Concern level: MODERATE

Where does this leave us?

To sum up, I feel fairly confident that most ‘deliberate practice’ that happens in schools bears little resemblance to Ericsson’s definition of the approach.

And, this is probably to be expected!

Teacher development is a unique domain with a unique set of constraints. In particular, teacher educators working to help in-service teachers improve face a vanishingly small amount of time to do this work in, and so it is pretty unsurprising that the practices that have emerged in school don’t reflect the work that happens in musical conservatories or surgical training programmes.

That said, I think this does represent further evidence that using the term ‘deliberate practice’ to describe our teacher education pedagogies is worth avoiding. Not only is the term nebulous with a range of varying interpretations, but what’s happening in schools seems to be pretty different to how the term is defined in the literature.

However, there is an outstanding issue to be considered.

The disparity between the development conditions in the settings examined in the literature (e.g. music, sports, surgery) and teaching is still a concern. To me, we need to interrogate the extent to which low-stakes practice is relevant to the challenges of developing expertise in teachers. This is what I’ll be unpacking in the final post in this mini-series on deliberate practice.

What do you think?

How does this resonate with your experiences? Have I missed anything? There are plenty of nuances and details to dig into in future posts; let’s start a conversation and push this forwards! Find me here on X/Twitter, here on Threads, or leave a comment below.

  • Ericsson KA and Harwell KW (2019) Deliberate Practice and Proposed Limits on the Effects of Practice on the Acquisition of Expert Performance: Why the Original Definition Matters and Recommendations for Future Research. Frontiers in Psychology 10: 2396.
  • Macnamara BN, Hambrick DZ and Oswald FL (2014) Deliberate Practice and Performance in Music, Games, Sports, Education, and Professions: A Meta-Analysis. Psychological Science 25(8): 1608-1618.

Thanks to Sarah Donarski (blog here) for pushing me to start this mini-series after a run-in at ResearchEd Warrington 2024!

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