A deliberate approach to making teachers truly expert at teaching

Some teacher are more effective at teaching their students than others. Why? And how might all teachers improve their performance in this most noble of professions?

These questions defy easy answers. But the good news is that there is an emerging science of developing teaching skill, based on research across multiple disciplines. We believe this pioneering work holds great promise for advancing the field of educator preparation and preparing teachers who will provide ambitious instruction to every student.

The new Deans for Impact publication Practice with Purpose: The Emerging Science of Teacher Expertise is an attempt to synthesize this research and make it actionable. More specifically, this document is intended to help teacher–educators and teachers improve their effectiveness by employing principles of deliberate practice.

The principles of deliberate practice stem from decades of research on human expertise. Across domains as diverse as surgery, chess, writing, music, and ballet, this research has identified a systematic approach to improving skill at a specific task.

The key is that experts practice differently – and more purposefully – than novices. First, they identify specific aspects of their overall performance for improvement and develop a vivid mental model of what “better performance” looks like. Then, with great effort and concentration, experts strive to perform in accordance with their mental models. Ideally, they work within a supportive environment that provides immediate feedback on specific ways to improve, enabling them to further refine and hone their skills.

It is this iterative cycle of goal-directed, focused practice, accompanied with feedback and reflection, that reliably produces the greatest gains in complex human skills.

Our hunch is that great teachers—just like experts in other fields—aren’t simply “born naturals.” Rather, great teachers are likely those individuals who continually strive to refine their craft and are provided the opportunities to do so. In other words, they’re likely teachers who have the same approach to practice as experts in other fields.

We aren’t the only ones to share in this sentiment. The pioneering efforts of ambitious teacher-educators such as Deborah Ball, Elham Kazemi, Pam Grossman, Magdelene Lampert and Morva McDonald – to name only a few – have identified approaches to developing teaching skill that are grounded in the principles of deliberate practice. We believe the entire field needs to shift toward a practice-based approach to educator preparation that will create a coherent experience for future teachers.

Getting there will require significant shifts in how programs are designed, particularly around clinical experiences and student teaching as well as induction support and professional development. Incentive structures will need to change so that faculty and cooperating teachers collectively work together to help novice teachers improve. This change will not be easy.

It is necessary, however, and should start now. Practice with Purpose contains a set of questions that educator-preparation programs can use to begin evaluating whether their program design ensures that teacher-candidates practice deliberately. For example, are clear goals collectively agreed to, and measures established to track progress? Is there a concrete plan for providing feedback to teacher-candidates as they practice? Do they have opportunities to practice in low-stakes settings?

Over time, as more programs move toward a practice-based approach, we hope that the emergent science of teacher expertise develops into a true science. This will require collecting better data on the effectiveness of educators who are prepared using deliberate-practice techniques, and gathering empirical evidence of success (or failure). A research agenda must accompany this work.

But now is the time to act. We believe that expert teaching, like other complex human skills, is not an innate talent but rather acquired through practice. Understanding how teaching expertise is acquired will enable all teachers to improve their effectiveness and, ultimately, ensure all students realize their full potential.

Anders Ericsson and Benjamin Riley

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