What the what of deliberate practice in teaching

Last month, Deans for Impact released Practice with Purpose: The Emerging Science of Teacher Expertise, our second programmatic publication. Our primary thesis is that we can improve teacher effectiveness if we use principles of “deliberate practice” to develop teacher expertise, both as part of preservice preparation and as ongoing professional development. We believe novice teachers in particular will benefit from a structured, coherent approach to developing teaching skill that aligns theory to practice.

Forgive me for (briefly) tooting our own horn, but the initial reaction to Practice with Purpose has been fantastic, and even exceeded our ambitious expectations. We are thrilled that so many in the education community are interested in learning about deliberate practice, and we’re looking forward to working with leaders of educator-preparation programs on implementing this approach.

At the same time, any new publication that advances a particular hypothesis will invite critique, and Practice with Purpose is no different. This skepticism is healthy and something we encourage at Deans for Impact, both within the organization and from external observers. And so I want to briefly address two important questions raised by two very smart people about the value of applying deliberate practice to teaching.

The first objection, advanced by my friend Dylan Wiliam in private conversation and via Twitter, involves timing. If one of the major goals of education is to add knowledge to students’ long-term memories, Wiliam argues, we won’t be able to identify the connection with a particular teaching activity, as student learning must be assessed months after a particular concept has been taught. As such, we are unlikely to develop consensus around what constitutes expert performance in teaching. The education forest cannot be seen separately from the deliberate-practice trees, if you will.

The flaw in this argument, in my view, is that it ignores the value of proximal indicators of learning as the starting point for identifying teacher expertise. If “memory is the residue of thought,” as Dan Willingham eloquently notes, then surely activities and instructional approaches that stimulate productive student thinking in any particular moment will help drive student learning over the long term. Put simply, you have to think now in order to learn later. So if we can identify particularly productive teaching activities (as measured by student thinking), educators can deliberately practice improving at these activities with reasonable confidence that this practice will lead to better long-term outcomes for students.

But that’s a big if, which brings me to the second (and related) objection offered by Greg Ashman, a teacher and PhD candidate in Australia. Ashman asks: Deliberately practice what? In his view, the absence of a consensus around a defined set of teaching skills that educators should employ is fatal to using a deliberate-practice approach. And Ashman appears skeptical that any such consensus may ever develop given the complexity of educating – as he puts it, “teaching is not like golf and this is the problem.”

Here, I partially agree with Ashman – teaching is far more complex than golf (or soccer for that matter, as I’ve argued before), and this makes it challenging indeed to reach broad professional consensus on what constitutes effectiveness. For this very reason, the closing pages of Practice with Purpose includes a call to action to the education field to develop a common language of practice-based teacher preparation in order to truly develop a science of teacher expertise.

But whether that consensus materializes or not, we still should take action now to provide more coherent training to novice teachers and teacher-candidates. And yes, this will involve questions of professional judgment.

For example, the “high leverage practices” identified by Deborah Ball and fostered through her TeachingWorks organization include many skills that can – and I think should – be deliberately practiced. Similarly, organization such as the Boston Teacher Residency and New Visions for Public Schools both center much of their professional development around improving “instructional routines” through methods that are very deliberate-practice-like. In contrast, I believe that the inTASC standards that many U.S. educator-preparation programs use are too vague to be useful in guiding teacher-skill development.

One final point. It is healthy for individuals in the education community to respectfully debate how we might best prepare teachers to be effective as they enter the classroom. I am grateful to Dylan Wiliam, Greg Ashman, and other thoughtful skeptics that help to sharpen our thinking around the application of deliberate practice to improving teacher expertise.

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