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Re-evaluating the role of deliberate practice in teacher development

Written by: Nick Pointer  Steve Farndon
8 min read
Nick Pointer and Steve Farndon, Ambition Institute, UK

Teacher educators face a common problem. During professional development sessions, teachers engage with new ideas or strategies, finding them stimulating and relevant. Yet these same teachers subsequently fail to change the way they act or make decisions in their classrooms; a phenomenon dubbed the ‘knowing–doing gap’ (Knight et al., 2013)

This is not for want of trying – teacher educators report that teachers ‘knew what they wanted their classes to be like, [yet were] unable to reliably do what it took to get there’ (Lemov et al., 2012 p.6). One approach to tackling this challenge is through deliberate practice, which has grown in popularity in teacher development over the past decade.

This article returns to the literature around deliberate practice to assess its suitability for use in schools and how it might be best employed in teacher professional development (PD).

The promise of deliberate practice

Teacher educators have historically faced a shortage of rigorous studies into effective PD. Before 2007, only three peer-reviewed studies into teacher PD met the What Works Clearinghouse standards without reservations (Yoon et al., 2007), hampering teacher educators’ decisions about how best to develop teachers.

To tackle the knowing–doing gap teacher educators looked elsewhere for solutions, focusing on the field of expertise development. The concept of deliberate practice (Ericsson et al., 1993) seemed particularly relevant, drawing on a body of evidence for expertise acquisition in the fields of music, chess and sport. Ericsson et al. suggest that high-quality development activities – organising practice efforts around individualised goals, rehearsal and embedded feedback loops – are essential to the development of highly skilled practitioners.

Deliberate practice has since been embraced to improve the practices of both trainee and in-service teachers. Fields where similar approaches have been successful, such with sportspeople or surgical clinicians, have something in common with teaching – they are performance professions. In such professions, the execution of the job is done ‘live’, with no opportunity to pause, restart or reattempt a performance. Performance professions have relatively high stakes, like classrooms; there is no way in which to regain the time lost if a lesson is unsuccessful. 

Deliberate practice therefore seems a strong choice for teacher preparation. However, there are three ways in which the development of educators is dissimilar to the fields from which deliberate practice was derived.

The ratio of performance to practice

The development of musicians and athletes differs notably from teaching, in that the ratio of the time spent performing to that spent practising is extremely low. In teaching, this ratio is extremely high, with most of the working week of an in-service teacher spent either teaching, marking or planning, none of which constitute deliberate practice. Instead, Ericsson et al. define such activities as ‘work’: performing in order to minimise errors and receive a reward, i.e. pay, since they are not structured in a way likely to lead to improvements in practice (Ericsson et al., 1993).

It therefore seems false to draw an equivalence between a teacher, with limited time available to dedicate to professional development, and a professional musician, who may spend weeks practising for a performance of a few hours. 

This may mean that attaining the kinds of benefits that some professions get from engaging in practice activities may not be possible for teachers, reducing the effectiveness of the approach. Some schools overcome this by timetabling practice sessions into the directed time for teachers, and another increasingly common approach has been to use instructional coaching as a mechanism for facilitating deliberate practice (Farndon, 2021).

Teaching is an ill-defined domain

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 can be described as an ‘immature profession’ (Carnine, 2000, p. 8), which, at present, lacks extensive empirical evidence for either effective teaching approaches or the bodies of knowledge and skill that we might want teachers to acquire.

A further barrier is the ill-defined nature of what the purposes and outcomes of education should be (e.g. Biesta, 2015), as opposed to the relatively well-defined outcomes of medical interventions. Without a rigorous basis for desirable teaching practices to work towards, let alone well-defined outcomes of education, it is challenging to design and facilitate practice experiences that are likely to improve teaching quality and, ultimately, student outcomes.

Some research suggests, however, that we can identify aspects of teaching that benefit from practice. The strongest evidence relates to building a positive classroom climate (Allen et al., 2011; Cohen et al., 2020). In these studies, teachers were asked to practise well-defined approaches to building a purposeful classroom environment, which led to significant changes in student academic outcomes or teachers’ attitudes and beliefs about students. This is likely to be particularly beneficial for novice teachers, who may struggle to simultaneously manage the behavioural and instructional demands of the classroom until they have automated some high-quality approaches (Feldon, 2007). 

Placing focus on aspects of teaching that occur regularly (such as interactions with students) appears to free up working memory to make more thoughtful decisions, and is therefore a useful application of deliberate practice. Practising these approaches outside of the classroom could be a productive focus of either one-on-one instructional coaching or whole-school deliberate practice sessions. It has, however, been harder to isolate subject-specific approaches to teaching that have a positive effect on student outcomes when practised (Garet et al., 2016; Kraft and Hill, 2019). 

This might lead us to focus deliberate practice solely on those routine aspects of teaching that have the strongest evidence base. However, if we reduce our training to these predictable aspects of the job, then we may narrow our conception of teaching. This focus can also feel repetitive and limiting for teachers over time, especially for those who are more experienced.

Complexity and interactivity of practice

Teaching differs from disciplines such as music recital in that much of it involves responding to dynamic, social interactions with students. Therefore, the role of building towards automaticity in practice is likely to be necessary, but not sufficient, for the development of teachers, when so much of the job entails reacting to events as they unfold. 

The need for flexibility of response to unpredictable situations is sometimes described in the literature as adaptive expertise (Hatano and Oura, 2003) and requires different training opportunities from those described above. The key output of such training is not necessarily more knowledge, but flexible knowledge that is organised around abstract principles. There is some evidence from the wider expertise literature that experimenting with different approaches to the same problem can support the development of this type of knowledge (Bohle Carbonell et al., 2014), though similar research is in its infancy within education. While such approaches are challenging to apply to teaching, there are some emerging models that can guide teacher educators when designing more complex practice activities for teachers. 

Firstly, there is evidence to suggest that any deliberate practice should be linked to a broader programme of teacher development (Cohen et al., 2021), to allow teachers to understand individual teaching choices in the light of underlying principles. A teacher educator might start a PD sequence by supporting teachers to identify particular classroom challenges (e.g. students lacking confidence when starting independent work), before sharing the principles that explain some of the causes for these challenges (e.g. the importance of self-efficacy and the role of modelling in facilitating early success). These can later be referred to during deliberate practice to help teachers to analyse the link between individual strategies and deeper principles.

Secondly, when deliberately practising, specific attention should be paid to key decision-making moments (Kelley-Petersen et al., 2018), so that teachers can explore the potential effects of different actions on student learning. While learning new strategies should certainly form part of teacher development, teachers also need to be encouraged to consider when, how and whether such strategies should be used (Kennedy, 2016). Once teachers’ theoretical understanding has grown, they should have opportunities to practise linked strategies in an environment that approximates the complexity of the classroom. This may involve colleagues acting in role as students presenting realistic responses to the teacher’s actions. The teacher educator can then interrupt the practice to encourage participants to analyse the decision-making of the teacher and how far it addresses the original learning challenge (Kelley-Petersen et al., 2018). To return to the previous example, teachers might focus on the transition into independent work, possibly comparing different approaches to modelling, which examples and tasks they should use, and what questions they should ask and to whom. Through discussion facilitated by the teacher educator, each decision could be evaluated based on its contribution to building students’ self-efficacy.

Finally, analysis of teacher decision-making should be sustained over time to meaningfully shift teachers’ abilities to notice and respond to key moments in their lessons (Correnti et al., 2020). Teachers seem to benefit from a cycle consisting of out-of-class practice, in-class implementation and subsequent out-of-class reflection and practice. This cycle enables teachers to uncover the important features and nuances of how different approaches can be used in a way that balances fidelity to strategies with adaptations to contextual needs. Teacher educators can use lesson video or observation notes alongside deliberate practice to repeatedly direct teachers’ attention back to the impact of a given approach on the desired student learning.

Practising for adaptive expertise is a much more demanding exercise than practising predictable strategies to automaticity. It requires an evidence-informed focus, skilled teacher educators and staff openness – whether in group practice sessions or during one-on-one instructional coaching.

Recommendations

Teachers will continue to need support to enact new approaches in their classrooms. However, school leaders should be aware of the strengths and limitations of practice as a mechanism within professional development. How practice activities affect student learning will depend on what is practised and how that practice is organised.

Choosing what to practise is a vital first decision – there is likely to be value in selecting, in the first instance, evidence-informed routine strategies in which teachers can build fluency. However, if this is seen as the endpoint of using practice in school, it is likely to limit the development of adaptive expertise. Lastly, as in-school teacher educators build expertise and experience in designing and facilitating practice, school leaders should think about increasing the complexity of practice, focusing on the decisions that teachers make and the impact that these have on student learning.

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