Deliberate practice in teacher education

Editor’s note: We recently released Practice with Purpose: The Emerging Science of Teacher Expertise. We’ll be periodically posting follow-up blog posts about the implications of deliberate practice in the field of teaching.

When I became a teacher, there was neither a clear sequence of skills to master, nor consensus as to how I should be trained. Over a year, I worked through 33 Qualified Teacher Status standards opportunistically: I might prioritize Q32 (“Work as a team member”) one week, and Q26a (“Make effective use of a range of assessment”) the next. My trainers – many of whom were superb – trained me in the varied ways they believed worked. Contrast that experience with the one I might have had if I had learned the violin as a child: the Suzuki Method specifies a sequences of pieces – from Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star to Mozart concertos – and crucial techniques to help learners master them, like adapted instruments and recordings. Can we make teacher education more like violin teaching, and if so, should we?

Learning to teach and learning to play the violin exemplify the difference between “purposeful” and “deliberate” practice. In purposeful practice, “a person tries very hard to push himself or herself to improve.” Deliberate practice, by contrast, “is informed and guided by the best performers’ accomplishments and by an understanding of what these expert performers do to excel (Ericsson and Pool, 2016: 100).” When I was training as a teacher, I pushed myself and my trainers pushed me, but the direction was not always clear (nor, in retrospect, was it always appropriate): my training was purposeful but not deliberate.

Purposeful practice leads to varied outcomes; deliberate practice helps achieve consistently good outcomes. In teacher education, purposeful practice means different teachers master different skills and areas of knowledge: the consequence will be varied outcomes for their students. Varied outcomes in healthcare concern us; they should concern us in education too. When he was investigating variation in healthcare and contrasting it with the high quality and low prices achieved by restaurants, Atul Gawande (2012) was advised by a restaurant manager to “study what the best people are doing, figure out how to standardize it, and then bring it to everyone to execute.” Gawande argues hospitals should catch up with restaurants; Anders Ericsson suggests that teacher education should do the same (Deans for Impact, 2016).

Applying deliberate practice to teaching creates both priorities and challenges. Many aspects of deliberate practice clearly apply to teacher education, such as selecting specific targets for improvement and using an accurate model of learning. Two aspects could undermine deliberate practice in teacher education however: the need to assess teachers’ current performance and to use a sequenced model of teacher development. Dylan Wiliam argues that deliberate practice “can’t be done” in teaching: good teaching changes long-term memory so quick feedback is impossible, and there’s no agreement on teacher expertise, so we’ll never know if we’re using the right techniques. If Wiliam is right, deliberate practice is impossible as we can neither provide useful feedback nor set specific targets without accurate assessment and a sequenced model.

Identifying effective teaching is challenging, but it can be done. We’ll never be able to measure our long-term goals for education, like our students’ use of algebra at apt moments years after leaving school (Koretz, 2008). Nor are observers good at identifying effective teachers –a random guess is usually better (Strong, 2011). Yet exaggerating our ignorance would be a mistake. Both the Danielson Framework and the Measures of Effective Teaching study showed some power in predicting teacher effectiveness (MET Project, 2013; Wiliam, 2016) as did instructional items on the CLASS observation framework (Strong, 2011). Identifying effective teaching will always be harder than identifying a good violinist – a missed note is obvious – but we’re getting better.

These measures and our observations of how trainees develop allow us to design a sequenced model of teacher development. Two exciting examples spring to mind. Van de Grift et al. (2014) have developed a model of the progression of teacher skills that correlates with student engagement and seems to apply across a number of European countries (Van de Grift, 2014). Bambrick-Santoyo (2016) has identified a sequence of steps in developing new teachers that form a logical progression, based on the work of the best-performing teacher-educators within Uncommon Schools. Both provide models against which we can train observers, and towards which we can guide teachers. No doubt neither is completely correct, but they allow us to enter a virtuous cycle: better training leading to “new levels of accomplishment and new accomplishments generating innovations in training (Ericsson and Pool, 2016: 86).” I envy the rapidity with which the trainees I now work are developing; I can’t wait to see how they will train the next generation of teachers.

Wiliam is right that teaching teachers will always be more complicated than teaching the violin, and he’s right, too, to criticize lazy pretensions to “deliberate practice”. However, neither argument absolves teacher educators from seeking to adopt deliberate practice. In England, the government spent £700 million training more than 30,000 new teachers last year (NAO, 2016), yet we still know very little about which training approaches and aspects of courses work (Mitchel and King, 2016). By articulating the work of skilled teachers and the best techniques to share them, and by evaluating and refining our model, we can move from purposeful towards deliberate practice, offering all students the teaching they deserve.


Bambrick-Santoyo, P. (2016) Get Better Faster: A 90-day pan for coaching new teachers. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley and Sons.

Deans for Impact (2016) Practice with Purpose: The Emerging Science of Teacher Expertise. Austin, TX: Deans for Impact

Ericsson, A., Pool, R. (2016) Peak: Secrets from the new science of expertise. Bodley Head, London

Gawande, A. (2012) Big Med: Restaurant chains have managed to combine quality control, cost control, and innovation. Can health care? New Yorker, 13 August.

Koretz, D. (2008) Measuring Up: What educational testing really tells us. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

Mitchel, A. and King. S. (2016) A New Agenda: Research to Build a Better Teacher Preparation Program. Bellwether Education Partners

National Audit Office (2016). Training New Teachers.

MET Project (2013) Ensuring Fair and Reliable Measures of Effective Teaching: Culminating Findings from the MET Project’s Three-Year Study. Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

Strong, M., Gargani, J., Hacifazlioğlu, O. (2011) Do We Know a Successful Teacher When We See One? Experiments in the Identification of Effective Teachers. Journal of Teacher Education 62(4) 367-382

Van de Grift, W., Helms-Lorenz, M., Maulana, R. (2014). Teaching skills of student teachers: Calibration of an evaluation instrument and its value in predicting student academic engagement. Studies in Educational Evaluation 43 150–159.

Van de Grift, W. (2014) Measuring teaching quality in several European countries, School Effectiveness and School Improvement, 25(3) 295-311.

Wiliam, D. (2016) Leadership for Teacher Learning: Creating a Culture Where All Teachers Improve So That All Students Succeed. Learning Sciences International

Harry Fletcher-Wood

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