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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

5 Keys to Achieving Deliberate Practice

By Kerry Elliott — August 30, 2016 6 min read
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Today’s guest post is written by Kerry Elliott, Ph.D. Candidate, teacher and former elementary school leader living in Melbourne, Australia.

My own schooling was made up of some great moments and some poor ones, moments that contribute to shaping my beliefs and practices as a parent, teacher and leader. During my final years of high school I saw kids around me accept paths for subjects, courses of study and prospective careers, some, determined by others. I watched those labelled into social and academic groups and saw the percussions that followed.

When told an ‘academic’ school probably wasn’t the best for me and an alternative was suggested, I was determined not to accept this path and proved the naysayers wrong. I worked hard and became more and more convinced that effort breed’s success, IQ isn’t fixed and attitude is everything. I want our kids to feel empowered, supported and encouraged to aim high, knowing that they can get better at what they do. Fortunately, research supports these beliefs, acknowledging that talent only gets you so far and through hard work and deliberate practice, you can get better at what you do...

Getting better at what you do can be achieved through deliberate practice. It is through such practice that automaticity is built. Think about it, the hours you spent at basketball practice, shooting hoops or completing drills, develop skills that eventually (well for some!) become automatic. Eagleman describes this a little further in his book, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, confirming that once actions are automatic the brain does not need to get involved in completing each specific skill, but rather the body completes the skill, ‘without thinking’. Eagleman claims this repetition creates ‘economical rote algorithms’. These algorithms, as in the case of a professional athlete or the person playing basketball, enables the athlete to focus on the strategic aspects of the game instead of the mechanical ones.

While not everyone is a professional athlete, this learning and automaticity applies in our everyday lives. Think about driving a car. Although learning to drive involved complex precision, remember the many lessons you had with a parent, arguing about when to change gears, brake, accelerate - all while trying to follow the road rules. Through practice these actions became automatic. You now no longer think about driving - you just get in the car and drive.

While learning to drive a car is not quite as complex as learning math or to read - with studies suggesting 75 to 100 hours of practice are needed for driving and anywhere from 7 to 7000 hours are required for learning to read- both require practice to develop automaticity. This automaticity is important in helping us get better at what we do. The instant retrieval of facts and information, such as learning number combinations and recognising words helps reduce mental load, thus making it easier to take on more challenging tasks. Think about reading for example, it is difficult to keep up with the storyline, when you are struggling to sound out each letter and work out each word. Studies have confirmed this, showing that if you read at a pace under about 60 wpm - struggling through each sentence, word by word - understanding what you read becomes almost impossible.

Ericsson (2007) takes the art of deliberate practice one step further, investigating how expertise is developed. He found that expert performance is not just the result of innate talent but becomes exceptional through intentional, effective and consistent practice, summing 10,000 or more hours of practice. He argues the secret to excellence is deliberate practice and is acquired through structured training and expert feedback. Feedback is really a crucial element here, think about learning to drive a car without someone beside you explaining what to do, or practising basketball with an ineffective dribbling technique, over and over. Lemov, author of Teach Like a Champion, talks about the importance of feedback to performance, noting that the term ‘practise makes perfect’, may be better termed ‘practise makes permanent’. Feedback and expert coaching is required to develop the right kind of revision and ensure the skill being practised is worth making permanent.

We don’t often see the hard work that goes on behind the scenes of expert performance. “Whenever you see a successful person, you only see the public glories, never the private sacrifices to reach them.” - Vaibhav Shah. I hope the dialogue around practice continues and people take solace knowing that learning is hard word, and that behind the scenes of talent, success and learning, is a lot of hard work and deliberate practice.

Some take away messages...

1) Talent is not enough. Practice is the difference between good and great. While talent certainly helps, there are many examples to draw on of people who work hard to get better at what they do. Spanish violinist, Pablo Sarasate, for example, practiced for fourteen hours a day, for 37 years and talks about how people now talk about him as a genius.

2) Expert performance is hard work and requires repeated actions. Sustained, repeated practice is needed to get better at what you do. Repeated practice is required to develop automaticity, helping support the learning of more cognitive demanding tasks. Learning a concept requires repeated exposure. To encourage long term storage, it is important to introduce information gradually, through repeated, timed intervals, thus when some processes are more automatic, there is more room to focus on the next task or step.

3) Focus - break it into manageable parts. Remember that saying ‘quality over quantity’. Well repeated opportunities to practise skills in short, sharp bursts at regular intervals is better than working at something all day with your mind only half focused on the skill. Opportunities to practise, in short sharp durations is an effective way to move concepts from working to long term memory and taking breaks can help reinvigorate energy levels. It is difficult to sustain concerted effort for long periods of time, thus repeated practice is essential.

4) Goal setting and perseverance is key. Goal setting becomes a powerful motivator when teamed with practice. Perseverance to continue getting better is important. We like to do things we can master and as we practice, we get better, setting bigger goals and feeling better about our accomplishments. Motivation is powerful. In the classroom the more success kids see, the more they will want to do and the better they will get. Devoted time to practising lower order skills under conditions of relative ease with increasing levels of challenge is important and key for continued improvement.

5) Feedback in the moment. Remembering that ‘practice makes permanent’, what you practice matters. Timely, immediate feedback is important - knowing what you are doing and why, then providing an opportunity to practice the skill again. Simple, descriptive feedback is important. You can’t focus on everything as once and too much feedback can cause confusion and be disheartening. Pick an element to work on and focus on that. Remember back to learning to drive, the time spent practising parking, over the over, with someone giving feedback from the side, certainly was most useful!

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.