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Is deliberate practice relevant to 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 three 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?

In the first two posts in this series I’ve examined whether we are talking about the same thing when we say ‘deliberate practice’ in schools, and the alignment between typical approaches in teacher development settings and Anders Ericsson’s original definition.

My main takeaway so far is I’m not convinced that using the term ‘deliberate practice’ to describe our teacher education pedagogies is either a) accurate to the literature, nor b) useful in supporting professional learning conversations.

However, there is one further issue to be tackled when it comes to the question of translating Ericsson’s deliberate practice into a teacher development setting.

I’m concerned that the similarities between teaching and other ‘performance professions’ where deliberate practice is used have been underexamined. That is, can we genuinely compare and translate the use of deliberate practice in other fields to teaching?

Issue 3: Is deliberate practice relevant to the challenges of developing expertise in teachers?

Recap: The ‘Knowing-Doing gap’

Teacher educators have historically grappled with a number of challenges when looking to develop the skills, knowledge and impact of teachers.

One particular challenge is dubbed the ‘Knowing-Doing gap’ – the fact that teachers seem to learn, understand, and appreciate the value of new practical teaching strategies during a development session, yet fail to reliably translate these into changes in their practices when returning to the classroom (more here on the risks of oversimplifying teacher development to the ‘Knowing-Doing gap’).

Faced with this challenge, teacher educators turned to the field of expertise development, and drew parallels between teaching and other ‘performance professions’, such as musicians, chess players and surgeons.

In these settings a common theme emerges – extensive low-stakes practice of practical approaches in ‘cold’ settings, before going ‘live’ – an approach that Anders Ericsson codified in the concept of deliberate practice.

This has led to a rapid growth in popularity of deliberate practice in teacher development over the past decade.

The problem?

My concern is that in our haste to solve the ‘Knowing-Doing gap’, the relevance and appropriateness of comparing teaching to other performance professions has been underexamined.

The risk is that we have oversimplified when drawing parallels between teaching and, say, medicine, or music.

In fact, I’d argue that this range of other performance professions have a number of differences to the demands of teaching:

  1. The ratio of rehearsal to performance
  2. The extent to which domains are well-defined
  3. The complexity and predictability of disciplines

1. The ratio of rehearsal to performance

An oft-cited example of the power of deliberate practice is the case of elite musicians, such as those studying in conservatoires.*

Comparing musicians to teachers, there is a notable difference. In music, the ratio of the time spent practising to the time spent performing is extremely high.

In teaching this ratio is extremely low, with the majority of the working week of an in-service teacher spent preparing lessons, classroom teaching, or following up from lessons, none of which constitute practice. Ericsson instead describes such activities as ‘work’ – performing in order to minimise errors and receive a reward, i.e. pay.

It is likely false to draw an equivalence between a teacher with vanishingly small amounts of time available to dedicate to professional development and a professional musician, who may spend weeks practising for a performance only a few hours long.

One of the core tenets of Ericsson’s concept of deliberate practice is an extensive number of hours of practice. This aim may be pretty easy to achieve in a setting like music, yet far less so in teacher development – even if we were to strictly adhere to Ericsson’s concept of deliberate practice (which as discussed previously, I’m not convinced we’re doing).

2. The extent to which domains are well-defined

There is a lack of both sector-wide agreement about what constitutes effective teaching practices, and research into these.

This differentiates teaching from professions such as medicine where there are high levels of agreement about the most effective courses of action in given circumstances, and empirical evidence to support said actions.

In contrast, teaching is a relatively immature profession (Carnine, 2000) which at present lacks much empirical evidence for either effective teaching approaches or the bodies of knowledge and skill we might want teachers to acquire.

Much of the evidence we do have is from product-process research which establishes correlations rather than causality. Our ability to research effective teaching approaches is muddied by the ‘fuzzy feedback loop’ of teaching (Mccrea, 2023) that makes it challenging to investigate these through randomised controlled trials.

And, even if we could, the number of elements of teaching we’d want to test, coupled with the enormous variations in context that could be applied to these, makes the prospect of this as a realistic goal of educational research fairly slim.

Compounding this further is the ill-defined nature (and lack of agreement) of what the purposes and outcomes of education should be (Turner, 2016). If we can’t even agree on the purpose of education, it’s hard to see how we can investigate and articulate ‘best practice’ approaches, which seems at odds with a deliberate practice approach.

3. The complexity and predictability of disciplines

Teaching differs from disciplines such as music recital in that a great deal of it involves responding to dynamic, social interactions with pupils.

The role of deliberate practice in settings like music, chess, or even surgery, is primarily concerned with building high levels of procedural fluency. And whilst some of these settings have varying degrees of complexity, a comparatively vast amount of the work of teachers is unpredictable and responsive.

Jackson (1990) describes teaching as ‘opportunistic’, reflecting the contingent nature of the classroom. Teachers have to make a significant number of decisions every minute, and are required to act quickly, adaptively, and often with limited information.

This may mean that deliberate practice has limited utility in teaching when so much of the job entails reacting to events as they unfold.

It is worth recognising, however, that some elements of expert teachers’ practices are more automated, and therefore perhaps better suited to the aims of a deliberate practice approach.

Feldon (2007) argues that a great deal of highly effective teachers’ expertise is underpinned by automated, routine behaviours, which free up teachers’ working memories to deal with the more responsive aspects of their roles.

This said, this may apply to a relatively limited number of teaching techniques compared to the wider and more diverse array of less routine elements. So, I think there’s a reasonable argument that much of what constitutes expertise in teaching is out of reach of a true deliberate practice approach.

Where does that leave us on the question of deliberate practice?

In this series, my aim has been to interrogate a) whether we’re talking about the same thing when we say ‘deliberate practice’, b) whether what’s happening in schools reflects Ericsson’s original definition, and c) how relevant comparisons to deliberate practice in other ‘performance professions’ are.

To sum up the story so far on each of these questions:

  • Firstly, it appears that we’re using ‘deliberate practice’ to describe a range of slightly differing approaches in education. Some use it simply to mean ‘low-stakes practice’, whereas for others it is more expansive.
  • Secondly, a comparison with the literature suggests that very little of what is being done in schools bears much resemblance to the technical definition of the term.
  • Lastly, when attempting to apply Ericsson’s concept of deliberate practice to the context and demands of teacher development, it seems like it doesn’t map across particularly well. In particular, strict comparisons between the way that that deliberate practice has been configured in other ‘performance professions’ and teaching seem to fall down.

The conclusion here seems pretty clear – Ericsson’s approach of deliberate practice doesn’t seem to be quite right when we’re developing teachers.

To me, this fundamentally comes down to a question of purpose. The aims of using deliberate practice to develop expertise in the range of fields Ericsson’s work examined differ from our aims when developing teachers. That is:

The primary aim of deliberate practice revolves around building automaticity.

And whilst, as discussed above, routine expertise may play a role in effective teaching, it isn’t the sum total of what we’re hoping to achieve. Expertise in teaching is also a product of teachers being able to use a wealth of responsive and adaptive practices.

So, how might we best develop both routine and adaptive elements of teachers’ practices?

I’ve previously mentioned that approaches to incorporate practice in schools differ from Ericsson’s definition of deliberate practice. These adaptations largely result from the nature of teacher development as a unique domain with a unique set of constraints.

Teacher educators working to help in-service teachers improve face a vanishingly small amount of time to do this work in, and, are trying to help teachers develop the ability to respond to a vastly complex environment. As a result a contextualised approach has emerged, which tends to be referred to as ‘practice-based teacher education’ (e.g. Mancenido et al., 2023).

And, I don’t think that the conclusions from this series of posts rule-out the potential benefits of practice-based pedagogies of teacher development!

Ericsson’s ‘deliberate practice’ is probably not that useful for developing teachers’ expertise; however, low-stakes practice may still have utility as part of a wider practice-based approach to teacher development.

Having left deliberate practice to one side, the question to consider is: “Can a practice-based approach to teacher development yield benefits for teachers?”

The issues of whether such an approach can support the development of more adaptive expertise, whether we can square it with the limited time available for in-school PD, and whether it’s a problem that ‘effective teaching’ is poorly defined are all worthy of examination. But, to do so, we need to break down what we mean by practice-based teacher development and what its purpose in the building of expertise really is.

And that’s what I’ll be looking at in my next series of posts!

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.

  • Carnine D (2000) Why Education Experts Resist Effective Practices (And What It Would Take to Make Education More Like Medicine). Washington, DC: The Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
  • 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.
  • Feldon D (2007) Cognitive Load and Classroom Teaching: The Double-Edged Sword of Automaticity. Educational Psychologist, 42(3), pp. 123-137.
  • Jackson PW (1990) Life in Classrooms. NY: Teachers College Press.
  • Mancenido Z, Hill HC, Coppersmith JC, Carter H, Pollard C & Monschauer C (2023) Practice-Based Teacher Education Pedagogies Improve Responsiveness: Evidence from a Lab Experiment. EdWorkingPaper: 23-873.
  • Mccrea P (2023) Developing Expert Teaching: A practical guide to designing effective professional development, for others and ourselves. Independently published.
  • Turner S (2016) Secondary Curriculum and Assessment Design. London: Bloomsbury Education.

*Whilst the case of sports is also sometimes also discussed as having similar issues to music, Ericsson says that this depends, arguing that a great deal of the training approaches undertaken by professional athletes can’t necessarily be categorised as true deliberate practice (Ericsson and Harwell, 2019). Since that’s what I’m looking to examine in this post, we’ll leave the case of athletes to one side for now – to return to in a later post!


Big thanks to Singh Gill (blog here) for all of his feedback and suggested improvements to early versions of this post.

And 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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