Americans love a ‘Spelling Bee‘. They are unique competitions where precocious children battle it out in a linguistic street-fight, whilst anxious parents look on with a mix of pride and anguish. It is a big deal in the USA. Arvind, the latest winner, won $30.000 for his efforts! If you have seen the compelling documentary, Spellbound, then you will know the intensity and drama of the competition. Recently, I came across some research attempting to diagnose the practice methods that accounted for the victors of these ‘Spelling Bee’ competitions – ‘Deliberate Practice Spells Success : Why Grittier Competitors Triumph at the National Spelling Bee‘, by Angela Duckworth et al. Clearly, Arvind Mahankali is a gritty individual! I am interested how we can create more Arvind’s in our classroom – students who are willing to apply the long-term effort and practice to succeed.
The research outlines two driving reasons for the success of the students, like Arvind, taking part in the ‘National Spelling Bee’: ‘grit‘ and ‘deliberate practice‘. Here is a helpful definition of ‘grit‘:
“We define grit as perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Grit entails working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress. The gritty individual approaches achievement as a marathon; his or her advantage is stamina. Whereas disappointment or boredom signals to others that it is time to change trajectory and cut losses, the gritty individual stays the course.”
From ‘Grit: Perseverance and Passion for Long-Term Goals’ by Angela L. Duckworth and Christopher Peterson
I have written a whole post defining ‘deliberate practice’ and its transformative power – see here. It can simply be defined as a mode of practice that is repeated consistently, but crucially supported by timely, precise feedback. It narrows the complexity of a task into specific components that can be drilled, honed and ultimately made automatic.
It is hard to extrapolate ‘answers‘ from the unique circumstances of the National Spelling Bee, or individuals like Arvind, to classroom learning more generally, but it does spark interesting questions about how we approach teaching and learning to promote ‘grit‘. I began to think of students in my own school whom I teach who share the same ‘grittiness’ as students like Arvind – the spelling superstar.
I teach one young man in one of my A Level classes. It is rather surprising he is sitting A levels at all. Based on his prior attainment, level 3 in his KS2 SATs, he is an unlikely candidate for further academic study; yet, he makes a mockery of national comparable outcomes. His GCSE results smashed his targets relative to equivalent students nationally and his success will no doubt continue. In my current year 10 GCSE class I have two students, one boy and one girl, who share all the ‘gritty’ traits of successful students like Arvind. At the start of the year, when I discussed their English targets with them, they both agreed to raise their personal target grades. Indeed, they pushed for this to be the case. Ever since they have approached lesson and every homework with a concerted effort that has outdone all their peers. It has seen them rise above expectations and achieve as well as, if not better, than other supposedly ‘brighter’ students with higher target grades.
I am fascinated by what processes and circumstances that create and develop students like those aforementioned. I would observe, from good knowledge of their siblings, that there is certainly an aspect of familial traits which account for their gritty character. Having role model parents exhibiting character traits that embody a true ‘grit’ goes a hell of a long way. According to John Hattie: “The effect of parental engagement over a student’s school career is equivalent to adding an extra two to three years to that student’s education”. As teachers and school leaders we do need to so a better job of sharing a dialogue with all parents about how to develop ‘grittiness’. Carole Dweck, in her work on the ‘growth mindset’, has very useful advice for parents on ‘praising effort and not ability’, ’embracing failure on the path to success’ and so on.
Of course, we need to go beyond talking the talk. we must teach with an aim to foster confident, knowledgeable and ‘gritty’ students. The following is my advice to teachers on how you can encode ‘gritty practice‘ in your pedagogy on a daily basis:
No teacher would challenge the impact of good quality feedback on student outcomes. Undertaken well, and couched in the right language, feedback can set goals that inspires the effort required to undertake the long slog of ‘deliberate practice’. Researchers have proven that setting challenging goals makes a positive difference to students – see here and it surely chimes with our innate common sense too! There is widespread knowledge of research, initiated by Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam, that proves that removing levels can have a positive impact upon students. If they focus upon formative feedback then they get better. If they possess the ‘grit‘ to persevere with responding to such feedback then they will become better learners.
Arvind and his fellow spelling spelling stars all receive plenty of expert coaching, but such feedback can also be replicated in the classroom with consistency. The students I teach that I used as exemplars absolutely thrive on feedback. They ask for it despite often being quiet individuals in the classroom setting. They produce extra work to get even more feedback. They willingly raise their targets to receive more challenging feedback and more challenging goals. I have realised that if I focus on precise and regular formative feedback, students can become ‘grittier’ and be more inclined to undertake the typically difficult process of ‘deliberate practice’.
Public critique and student feedback
Teacher feedback is crucial, but as Graham Nutthall’s research indicated (read ‘The Hidden Lives of Learners‘), students receive most of their feedback from their peers, either formally or informally. We must therefore train students and scaffold their language to ensure the feedback they give is laced with ‘grittiness‘! Ron Berger’s strategy for ‘Public Critique’ is a very useful way of ensuring that student feedback hones in on the right kind of feedback – particularly with a ‘specific‘ focus upon making improvements. I have written about the gallery-style approach to ‘Public Critique’ here. If we ensure that students give one another better feedback we can engender more opportunities for ‘deliberate practice’, enhancing their ‘grittiness‘.
A Culture of ‘Practice Perfect’
Doug Lemov’s brilliant book, ‘Practice Perfect‘, is about how the effective practice can encode success. We can ensure students are better prepared to undertake genuine independent study by drilling them with strong patterns of practice. For example, by repeatedly getting students to tackle ‘worked examples‘ or working to group, classify or improve models of writing we can help them to automate the knowledge needed to become genuinely independent writers. Scaffolding students strongly in the first instance, then moving towards more independent work (with specific feedback again) is nothing new, but honing this process over and over can give students the habits for independent ‘deliberate practice’ which can see students make successful transformations in their learning.
A second key aspect of encoding success is by having a culture of crafting and drafting (read the gems of wisdom from Ron Berger on this aspect here). I was only yesterday speaking to a colleague who worked with a really weak SEN group. She worked on rewriting one piece of work at least four times. I had done exactly the same with my more able GCSE group this year. Students are often asked to complete one draft and then we praise them regardless of whether it is the very best they can do. We need to pursue the often ugly, difficult process of ‘deliberate practice’ in this instance and once more embed the highest standards of challenge into the work we expect from our students – encoding in their minds an innate sense of what excellence looks like and feels like so that they can replicate it.
Better Questioning Strategies
We often forget that our core pedagogy – simply the construction of our questioning – can have a significant impact upon the standards and expectations our students form. For example, if they are allowed the get-out clause of simply saying ‘I don’t know‘ to questions in class then they will avoid the challenge of answering questions in class. If we only proffer closed questions with an easy ‘guessing the answer the teacher wants‘ game for students we will sell students short. We need to ask students more challenging ‘why’ questions (see my post on ‘why’ questions here and my post on asking open and inclusive questions here). The simple truth is that by keeping the level of challenge high in all oral communication in our classroom we will foster a culture that engenders ‘grittier‘ students.
There is much debate about the value of homework, with evidence from John Hattie’s ‘Visible Learning’ proving it is more effective for older students. Of course, the evidence is problematic – see this post from Tom Sherrington about the homework debate, complete with a reply from John Hattie: ‘Homework: What does the Hattie research tell us?. My experience of homework is that the students who apply themselves to homework most consistently are those students who make the most progress in my lessons. Unsurprising really! I’m sure Arvind differentiated himself from the thousands of competitors in the ‘National Spelling Bee’ by undertaking such ‘homework’.This also applies with unerring accuracy with the students I have exemplified.
Only this last week in my GCSE English class students were given a homework task to further research and make final notes in preparation for a Shakespeare controlled assessment. The aforementioned boy in the group, the epitome of a gritty and determined individual, went far beyond most of the other students. What he may lack in innate ability in comparison to some other students in the group, he makes up for and exceeds with effort. Given an open brief and some links and multiple resources, he went to town on the homework. Subsequently, he was far better prepared than most other students, making those marginal gains that will see him excel. My answer is simple. We must set purposeful and challenging homework regularly, with related feedback on that homework. We should embed into our lesson plans a celebration of students who go the extra mile with homework.
We must recognise that a singular inspirational assembly will not embed the attitude, knowledge and skills required to make any difference to the ‘grittiness‘ of our students in the long term. We do need to embed the attitudes and ideas associated with ‘grit‘ in the daily language of a school, with all teachers authentically sharing the belief that concerted effort and ‘grit‘ can make a definitive difference for our students. I do think that simply using the language is not enough and that we need to think about applying the concepts to our pedagogy with routine consistency. We must root ‘grittiness‘ into the culture, language, pedagogy and daily practice of our schools.
– An excellent US Dept of Education report on ‘Promoting Grit, Tenacity and Perseverance‘.
– An interesting article from the New York Times: ‘What if the Secret to Success is Failure?’
– An extensive report by the Young Foundation: ‘Grit – The Skills for Success and how they are Grown’. Via Zoe Elder (thank you Zoe).
“Every teacher needs to improve, not because they are not good enough, but because they can be even better.”
Every teacher wants to get better. I use Dylan Wiliam’s quotation over and over unashamedly because I think it strikes a truth that all teachers and school leaders must embrace. I used it to begin my #TMClevedon seminar on ‘becoming a better teacher‘. We all know and understand the pivotal impact of teacher quality for our students and surely we all want to be better. There really is no bigger prize: better teachers improve the life chances of students. It should be our personal focus as committed professionals. It should be the core purpose of school leaders to develop great teachers. The government should relentlessly focus its resources and efforts into improving our current stock of teachers, supporting them to be better.
Of course, many teachers are not improving. The reality is that the impact of teacher experience on student outcomes actually plateaus after a couple of years – see the evidence here. Therefore waiting to get better simply from the benefit of experience throughout your career won’t happen. We may want to get better, but are we actually going about it in the right way? We must ask ourselves an awkward and challenging question. Perhaps a pretty uncomfortable ‘elephant in the room’ question: Have we plateaued as a teacher?
After the whirlwind of feedback and the perilously steep learning curves of our first two years as teachers the impact of experience dulls. Is the comfort derived from developing good habits of behaviour management and easing our attendant stresses a bad thing? No. Should we be flagellating ourselves with the birch over our failure to become an expert in only a couple of years? Of course not! Should we be looking in the mirror and looking for new answers how to better improve? I would argue yes.
The Problem with Continuous Professional Development
As the line goes, no man is an island. No teacher can improve in splendid isolation. The problem with continuous professional development is that the continuous bit is too often missing. The most commonly booked courses focus on external threats like OFSTED. They are not systematic and most often are not even about learning. David Weston’s (on Twitter as @informed_edu) Teacher Development Trust has outlined the research that has identified that only 1% of CPD has a transformative impact on classroom practice. Even the best CPD will struggle to have a definitive impact upon classroom practice. Time and money are scarce resources in our current climate. This may all sound bleak, but the heartening truth is that teachers can lead a transformation themselves. Let’s not fool ourselves, it will take effort and a boatload of ‘deliberate practice’…but teachers can get better and do it for themselves.
Like waiting for some course that will deliver pedagogical manna from heaven, we too often look in the wrong place for answers. We can too easily waste time focusing upon the latest tools and new resources and not on our core practice that makes the difference. It is perhaps only natural. Shiny new tools promise us so much, yet their promise too often translates into a crumby reality. Spending time making resources, like cards sorts or making lovely new displays, feels very much like hard work, and often is time-consuming, but the actual impact on learning can finite, and arguably negligible, but certainly not worth the time. We need to focus upon the 80/20 rule (otherwise known as the ‘Pareto principal ‘).
We must identify the vital core aspects of our pedagogy that will have the greatest impact for our learners. We must narrow our focus and deliberately practice those 20% of teaching strategies that have 80% of the impact on learning. What are your strategies? Note them down on this diagram and focus in your ‘deliberate practice’ on these and these alone.
I have written at length about the ‘holy trinity’ of teacher practice as I see it: effective explanations, questioning and feedback (both oral feedback and written feedback). I am fully aware my choices may seem rather lacking in glamour and sparkle! There is no branded, bespoke package for teacher explanations. We do them habitually, intuitively and daily, often without even thinking, so automatic are they to our practice. But, like all habits, we need to unpick and analyse if we are to really make sustained improvements. We need to heed Dylan Wiliam’s advice and stop doing so many good things. Instead we must hone, craft and perfect our core practice. Here is my law of the vital few, but remember, these are my strategies – look for yours.
The Answer: ‘Deliberate Practice’
A rather gritty and sobering truth about being an expert teacher, or an expert at anything for matter, is that it takes a tremendous amount of hard work. Thousands of hours of hard work, probably unsurprisingly, is the answer. Yet, what happens with teachers who have taught for many years and who have stubbornly plateaued regardless of the time invested? The issue is that we often undertake the wrong sort of practice and our ‘hard work’ lacks direction. Every teacher undertakes repeated practice, but simply doing something over does not confer expertise – in fact, simply repeating practice can harden bad habits. Teachers need to undertake a specific type of practice: ‘deliberate practice‘.
So what is it? I have written about it in detail here. To use a simple analogy, if you think about a top golfer, they practice specific shots, with a coach giving immediate feedback, typically including a series of corrective tweaks. The feedback is king. The reflection and tweaks are essential. In many ways, we need to revert to our state as an NQT – constantly reflecting upon our practice with the alert mindset of the novice. Perhaps we cannot source a top golf coach, but we can find a ‘critical friend’ in a colleague; we can blog and find an audience there; we can work with our subject leaders, a teacher coach etc. To improve we must undertake what can be a frustrating process with grit and resilience. Here is a simple step by step guide to the ‘deliberate practice‘ method:
What are the Barriers to Improvement?
Of course, such a process that demands monotony and discipline is hard to sustain. Like a new year diet, many of us are likely to slip. Our hands caught in the biscuit tin by mid-January at best! Such barriers are represented in the above image. Firstly, there is the emotional barriers. Exposing ourselves to failure can be a chastening business. Failing regularly seems like plain stupidity – a raw, public affair! We need to focus on the goal and be committed to getting better and being prepared to fail. Often, we will need support: inspiring school leaders, appreciative students, a strong department team – not too much to ask! Secondly, we instinctively view success falsely as a linear process, the fixed idea of the genius not encountering failure is rooted in our psyche. We must be prepared for the messy process of concerted practice in a classroom – the advice to never work with children and animals exists for a reason! Of course,time is a crucial barrier. We must be committed to giving over extra time to hone our practice. We should look to find marginal gains in terms of time with aspects of our practice, like written feedback (see my partner post about my #TMClevedon seminar here). Finally, we must recognise our bad habits – like the smoking granny! Then we need to work on improving our habits.
We can all improve upon our habits. We can allocate weekly times and places to share, research and reward ourselves. We are programmed to follow little cues when forming new habits. We need to find time by reducing our workload in other ways, such as honing our written feedback. Find pockets of time that you can practice and plan. Ideally, this is done with a ‘critical friend’. Perhaps a like-minded colleague? A school teacher coach? A subject leader? By committing ourselves to others and publicly announcing our plans we are much likely to see it through. Too often the new habit, such as executing a new teaching strategy, will simply not pay off quickly or easily. This is where our mettle is tested. We must ride through this hump in the road and focus on the small bright spots of success that can lead the way to being a consistently better teacher.
Reflect to Improve
It is crucial to focus upon being a reflective practitioner to sustain professional improvement. This takes habit forming and an allocation of our time. Good schools will factor this into CPD time. This can involve filming ourselves working on our core practice; writing a blog; speaking with your colleagues, your critical friend or coach, and people on the like of Twitter about pedagogy etc. We should be prepared to read and research like we did when we were at university. If we are serious about being an expert we must undertake the research habits which we would demand of our best students for example. In the past I have been guilty of hypocrisy – expecting to get better as a teacher without the extra commitment. Yes, we have the issue of time, but in the long run the rewards could be transformative for your professional practice.
One final strategy is to practice perfect. The following diagram can help by giving you a simple record of the thirty or so attempts at practice reputed to help root new habits in our teaching routine. It was originally shared by the brilliant Daniel Coyle on his really useful website: http://thetalentcode.com/. Simply take the diagram and select the first letter of the focus of your ‘deliberate practice’. Once you have you ‘E’ for explanations that use thirsty or so bubbles (the full one hundred if you are brave…or foolhardy!) for your letter ‘E’ and check them off as your undertake your classroom practice.
Perhaps make little reflective notes to bank that crucial feedback, both from yourself or your ‘critical friend’. This segmenting of what is of course complex information is important to help us learn new habits and strategies more effectively. You could make two or three bubbles on the diagram milestones for videoing yourself to get that extra layer of feedback into your reflective practice. Using this diagram is only a small reflective strategy, but perhaps it could be the cue you need to form a new habit. Perhaps you could become a brilliant teacher by undertaking such ‘deliberate practice‘ and doing it for yourself. In the words of William Faulkner:
“Don’t bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself.”
The video link for my TeachMeet Clevedon seminar is here: http://youtu.be/G2liBBzcAlw. Thank you to everyone at Clevedon school for their brilliant hospitality. It was a fantastic few days full of inspiring people who certainly made me want to be better.
(This post is a copy of my article for the Guardian Teacher network)
I’m a huge football fan and I always have been since my father took me to watch Everton with the promise of dour football and a lukewarm pie. Such inspiration led me to play football almost continuously throughout my childhood to the present day. If I was to total my hours of practice it would surely be in the thousands. In fact, it would near the 10,000 hours total which has been associated with becoming an expert by people in the know. Only I am not an expert. I am little better than I was when I was a spotty teenager. A long time ago I stopped improving at football. I had reached my ‘ok plateau’. I was no Wayne Rooney and I had accepted that I was going to be ok as a happy amateur. So how does my football practice explain the problem of teacher improvement?
The author, Joshua Foer, originated the term ‘ok plateau’ in his popular science book, Moonwalking with Einstein, on the subject of improving memory. He used it to describe that common autopilot state when you have habitually mastered the basics of a task, but despite being skilled you stop really improving to reach expert status; you simply plateau in performance.
Teachers are as prone as any other profession to this state. After our time as a trainee and NQT, when we are grasping new knowledge and making successful connections, our improvement slows, sometimes to a stop. This, unsurprisingly correlates with a decline in regular coaching.
The evidence, from Rivkin, Hanushek and Kain (2005), is that after the first couple of years teacher quality reaches a plateau and teacher experience beyond this point has a negligible impact upon student attainment. This clashes with our basic presumptions about experience in teaching and it should certainly give us thought.
I believe I experienced a similar ‘ok plateau’ for at least five or six years. After mastering the craft of behaviour management and getting to know the nuts of bolts of teaching English I was simply happy to be doing a good job. With the storm of demands created by workload, any improvement beyond this point seemed fanciful. I stopped reading about teaching and learning and I stopped being coached with genuine regularity.
Part of the problem is our system of continuous performance development (CPD). This system is tied to targets and professional standards that actually inhibit conscientious teachers taking risks and experimenting with new teaching strategies. We set targets, either consciously or subconsciously, so that we may meet them, regardless whether they genuinely improve our practice or not. Gone is the regular critical feedback of our first couple of years. We move into autopilot, often even entering a state of professional inertia.
There are no quick fixes to the issue of genuine continuous teacher improvement. One method is to undertake consistent coaching systems that better imitate our earlier state as training teachers. We need to separate the judgemental CPD targets from genuinely developmental strategies, like coaching in departments. In my school we are employing a team of expert coaches to drive research and personal coaching across the school. In departments, we are also moving to a more personalised coaching model where feedback is constructively critical and consistent, with time allocated to do this.
A key issue is that experienced teachers are not undertaking the most effective method to continuously improve; deliberate practice (see my blog post on the subject here. Deliberate practice involves chunking smaller aspects of pedagogy and repeating that practice with lots of immediate coaching feedback. When I play football I get no specific feedback, it is trial and error, with lots of uncorrected errors. Deliberate practice is about a self-critical process of reflection and gradually, but consistently, raising the level of challenge. It is the responsibility of the teacher to be committed to such time consuming and challenging practice, but it is also the responsibility of school leaders to support teachers and to create fertile conditions for such development.
There are many books that delineate effective deliberate practice and support successful teacher coaching, such as Practice Perfect, by Doug Lemov, or Talent is Overrated, by Geoff Golvin, so teachers can take some control of their own development if their school conditions prove barren.
Many teachers are now writing blogs to reflect on their practice; undertaking action research, attending TeachMeets, or connecting with other teachers in professional networks, such as Twitter, to develop their pedagogy. There is such a passion and commitment to our vocation that I see every day in our profession that is heartening.
I may be a bit past my dream of playing for Everton, but with the right type of practice and support I can improve to eventually become an expert teacher. When Dylan Wiliam popularises research that proves that students with the best teachers learn twice as fast as average then our pursuit of excellence, with effective coaching and deliberate practice, could just make a transformative difference for our students.
It is that time of year already. The weeks have suddenly crashed forward like waves and exam dates loom bleakly in the distance. Of course, we start looking for creative ways to sustain the interest of students. We look to engage them in their learning so that they may pay some attention to our relentless pleading for effort and revision. We explain the grandiose importance of said exams and those simple letters on certificates that provide their ticket to their future lives. I have taught for a decade now and I may despair of the examinations themselves, and the crass system of judgement that is league tables, but if our students are to succeed in these exams then as we approach exam season the answer is simple. In the words made famous by that famous sage – Sarah Palin(!): “drill baby drill!”
Let me explain my rationale for what may seem a simplistic and backward looking approach. Yes, there are many constructivist techniques that will aid the mastery of knowledge and therefore be appropriate for revision. Spacing out revision to encompass different topics, with varied pedagogy is likely to help make some of their learning more memorable. The evidence at hand; however, proves that testing as practice, repeated, with skilled feedback has a very positive impact on learning – see research here. This has been labelled the ‘testing effect’, whereat the act of retrieving information for a test is proven to improve recall more than simply restudying information. This is not advocating lots of high stakes testing, but simply a recognition that testing for learning works and improves long term retention of knowledge: the holy grail for exam success. We mustn’t shy away from exam drills given the nature of the assessment.
Let me say that I am a teacher of English that values creativity and imagination hugely. I deplore exams which are narrow and reductive. I will prepare students for an AS level English Literature exam where the great literature we read and I teach, such as the poetry of Robert Browning, is reduced rather simplistically into a mere list of narrative devices. Yet, exams in themselves are a necessary evil – an imperfect judgement of knowledge and understanding – but one of the best tools we have to do the job. What I have come to learn myself is that repetition, and even rote learning, can actually create the fertile conditions for subsequent creativity and the potent force of imagination. In the words of the great American basketball coach, John Wooden: “Drilling creates a foundation on which individual initiative and imagination can flourish.”
I recently posted a blog on ‘deliberate practice’ here which reiterates the point that real improvement and mastery comes from drilled repetition, with quick, useful feedback. Of course, to make the many marginal gains required for true expertise there is much repetition and deliberate practice required. Students will likely not often experience the heralded ‘flow’ state during revision. Going over and over any body of knowledge takes grit, discipline and perseverance because it can often be simply boring. We must be honest with students about the power of conquering boredom. I think the skill of mastering boredom is a sure-fire path to ultimate success. What we mustn’t do, as teachers, is collude with many aspects of our instant gratification culture, and actually avoid the challenge – we must embrace the boredom and the difficulty of repeated exam practice. We must communicate with our students that not all learning can, or even should, be fun; it can often be hard, challenging and mentally gruelling.
Through repeated deliberate practice of exams students become skilled in the automatic state that comes with habit forming. It is like driving in a car for the thousandth time, we then switch off and drift into our own automatic mode, often having creative reveries as we drive. A good real life example of his notion is from the world of sport. Barcelona FC are world renowned for being the greatest football team in the world, perhaps of all time. Their creativity and skill is celebrated by every football fan. Of course, it isn’t sheer chance that has seen this come to pass. The Barcelona way, initiated by a great player, and believer in deliberate practice, Johan Cruyff, relies on the simplest of training drills – the ‘rondo’. See here:
The ‘rondo’ drill cannot replicate the pressure of the actual match in many ways, but the repeated drill hones that quick passing habit which is so key to their creative passing style – known as ‘tika taka’. It is a simplification of the real game, much like focusing in on exam technique, crafting and drafting the perfect exam answer singularly, rather than sitting full papers endlessly. what you can see in the video is the mastery, and the related pleasure, that comes from drilling and deliberate practice. What we must do is stop seeing repetition as being the enemy of creativity or higher order thinking. With exam revision repetition is our friend. We need to communicate that in the language we use to students. Like with writing, we cannot exhibit real creativity unless we have mastered the laws of grammar. Like Picasso painting a Cubist masterpiece, we cannot creatively break the rule unless we practise and understand those rules in the first place. We cannot make the cognitive leap of imaginative originality unless we have a solid grounding in the core knowledge of the basics.
It is common sense really, but too often teachers feel the pressure to teach ‘all singing, all dancing’ lessons, or make the learning fun and creative, when sometimes the most effective method is some good old-fashioned drilling of practice and well chosen drills of testing for learning.
“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who had practiced one kick 10,000 times.” Bruce Lee
When I was a young boy I dreamt of being like Bruce Lee. He had complete mastery over his body and mind. He was a genius who could also beat anybody up, if required…crucial for a young, bespectacled light-weight like me! I remember owning a book on ‘Hung Ga Kung Fu‘ – only, I never did commit myself to the training. For one, no-one wanted to grapple with me or be repeatedly kicked a thousand times over, and secondly, my big brother was, well…just too big! After dabbling with a few thousand hours of football practice over the years, without expertise, the next great passion became the pursuit of becoming an expert teacher. This is what brings me back around to Bruce Lee twenty years later. His quotation above about ‘deliberate practice‘ has many ramifications for what our professionalism means and how we must work in schools to improve if we want to become experts and great teachers. The ‘Twelve Bridges’ of ‘Hung Ga Kung Fu’ provide excellent behaviour management poses for the discerning teacher!
Many people know the many great quotations about effort trumping ability; about genius resulting from resilient persistence, rather than innate ability. The mystique that attends the genius attributed to the likes of Bruce Lee (I remember the stories about his fabled ‘one inch punch’ or his superhuman flexibility) is stripped away and the theory of ‘10,000 hours’ of practice presents us with an all too human answer to what becoming an expert means – simply lots of effort! Although more nuanced scientific evidence deems the epic 10,000 as an average, with research proving 3,000 hours can establish expert status in a specific domain, such as chess – see the research here). A famous example of the popular 10,000 hours hypothesis is in Malcolm Gladwell’s enjoyable narrative, based loosely on the theme of ‘deliberate practice‘ , entitled ‘Outliers‘. Gladwell takes a more anecdotal, magazine-style approach; whereas the likes of Geoff Colvin grapple with a more rigorous on ‘deliberate practice’, which is much more specific and complex a narrative than Gladwell suggests. A good example is this golfing analogy form Colvin:
“For example: Simply hitting a bucket of balls is not deliberate practice, which is why most golfers don’t get better. Hitting an eight-iron 300 times with a goal of leaving the ball within 20 feet of the pin 80 percent of the time, continually observing results and making appropriate adjustments, and doing that for hours every day – that’s deliberate practice.” Geoff Colvin, ‘What It takes to be Great’
Interesting elements of the research used by Colvin, from K Anders Ericsson deserve a reading and could be compressed into nuggets like this:
“Across many domains of expertise, a remarkably consistent pattern emerges: The best individuals start practice at earlier ages and maintain a higher level of daily practice. Moreover, estimates indicate that at any given age the best individuals in quite different domains, such as sports and music, spend similar amounts of time on deliberate practice. In virtually all domains, there is evidence that the most important activity— practice, thinking, or writing—requires considerable effort and is scheduled for a fixed period during the day. For those exceptional individuals who sustain this regular activity for months and years, its duration is limited to 2-4 h a day, which is a fraction of their time awake.” ‘The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance’, K. Anders Ericsson, Ralf Th. Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Romer
Now, undertaking a vast amount of practice does not confer expertise, otherwise we would have moved towards some practice driven master-race long ago! A whole host of other factors weigh into the mix to complicate the rightly lauded power of effort. Factors such as the underpinning motivational qualities and perseverance of the individual; the quality of coaching; the innate cognitive ability of the person and the capacity of their working memory to retain key information. These are just some of the complications that muddy the narrative somewhat. Yet, they may muddy the water, but they do not eliminate the big fish of the idea: that the simple but very powerful idea that ‘deliberate practice‘ can have a transformative impact on performance for teachers and beyond.
Also, it is crucial to note that just turning up for work and bashing out a few lessons is not true ‘deliberate practice‘ either. ‘Deliberate practice‘ has some very specific qualities which differentiate it from mere ‘practice‘, or what we typically deem ‘work‘. This is what is key for schools when aiming for a successful Performance Development system for example. ‘Deliberate practice‘ is not ‘mindless‘ repetition, where a teacher uses the same resource or strategy willy nilly, in a loose ‘trail and error’. It is not trying lots of fun, new resources or teaching strategies out on a pliant group. Instead, it is about a deeply reflective process, that is highly rigorous and specific.
It is therefore often slow and difficult – nothing like the ‘flow’ state articulated by the likes of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. It requires organisation and often works best as action research, or other such reflective process, like blogging your practice. The process undertaken is not easy – therefore discipline, the sort possessed by a rare few, is paramount. The ‘flow’ may come later, with mastery of an aspect of teaching for example, if at all. Too often in education we expect that if we adapt to find something that will establish that ‘flow’ for students they will fly, but the reality is that we are doing them a disservice. if we never make them persevere with the struggle and failure of undertaking difficult work they will never have the ‘grit’ to be true experts in anything. We need to train ourselves, and our students in what W. B. Yeat’s poetically described as “the fascination of what is difficult” if we are to last the course. It takes time and effort – some deep habit forming actions – with a strong degree of resilience to plough through the many failures on the path to mastery.
Here is my simplified idea of some of the key steps in the process:
Key Steps for Successful ‘Deliberate Practice’
1. Define the time and place High quality ‘deliberate practice’ requires a careful consideration of time and place (just like good habit forming). Consider: when is the best time to reflect? When are you best focused and for how long? Define the time and place specifically. Be consistent and persistent about the habit. Ericsson’s research notes that consistency is key.
2. Research your evidence thoroughly, then define, and refine, your focus. Share with a coach/critical friend Then there is the reflective thinking about the specific focus of the practice (intelligent research is key here). Have you researched all the evidence? Do you know your Hattie from your ‘Brain Gym’? Then each skill needs to be broken down into sharply defined elements. The focus is then entirely on that one minor element – over and over, as Bruce Lee describes. As Dylan Wiliam, rather paradoxically stated, “we must stop trying to do too many good things.” Our focus must be narrow – be it asking great questions; establishing rigorous peer feedback etc. – otherwise we will not be able to make exacting improvements. Too much ‘Performance Development’ is over ambitious, has too many strands, or is has distractions divorced from our core pedagogy.
3. Record your evidence and your reflections systematically. Have an open and frank dialogue with your coach on a consistent basis Then it becomes a case of recording that practice (the aforementioned action research and blogging is ideal). It could be an individual blog, or a departmental or school blog. It can be better when you are part of a group whom are willing to give you focused, supportive criticisms, but sometimes that is impractical for the degree of close coaching required. The audience and feedback to a blog can also be very useful to the process. What is important is that we record continually to give structure to our reflections. If we leave our responses down to memory we may well fall prey to ‘confirmation bias‘ i.e. we will believe what we want to believe! This is far from easy in the hurly burly of the day job, so school leaders would do well to facilitate as much of this time as possible, providing resources such as time (all important), the technical support and high quality coaches. Good quality time: such as your coach observing your practice (it could be as short as five minutes) and giving you very specific feedback; or observing experts, within and without of your school, needs to happen weekly. Not only that, to make significant improvements the teacher must be willing to devote more time than could be realistically allocated within school hours. As Ron Berger states, an ‘ethic of excellence’ must be cultivated.
4. Share, reflect and repeat…and repeat… No-one said this process would be easy – becoming an expert in anything takes a grinding determination for betterment. Some people simply don’t care enough to face the difficulty – this is true in all professions and walks of life. Repetition is dull, recording evidence lacks the ‘sexiness’ of the performing act! It is why so few people become true experts. As teachers, we often enjoy the trialling of a new strategy – by the fifth attempt at improving the strategy, the inclination to undertake more student voice or record more summative evidence becomes a burden we simply let fall aside. This is where the discipline of step 1 comes in; as well as the responsibility to your coach and/or wider audience in step 2 and 3.
Coaching in Schools
Coaching is becoming a much more common phenomenon in schools. It is linked to ‘Performance Development’, but that link is problematic. Whilst performance targets are linked to career advancement, we will always naturally become risk averse; falling back upon more well established practices to meet the performance goals. This conservative response doesn’t encourage the attitude needed for the real development of expert skills. Not only that, the best laid plans of ‘Performance Development’ targets at the beginning of the school year often lack the flexibility required for really effective ‘deliberate practice‘. We become determined to ‘pass’ our ‘Performance Development’ target, regardless of whether the target itself may have become useless to our real development needs – if it ever was in the first place.
What schools must do, therefore, is carefully delineate between ‘coaching’ and ‘Performance Development’. They must coach good coaches; they must facilitate time for the deliberate practice to be observed, recorded and reflected upon. Schools must ask how they can lever this type of practice into our weekly structures. Schools must have a relentless focus upon sharing good pedagogy, whilst encouraging that sharing across the boundaries of the school gates. There is evidence to say that teachers stop developing after two or three years. That is to say, that basics of behaviour management are mastered and the basic repertoire of pedagogy is established, but then there must be a fallible ‘trial and error’ process stopping some teachers moving towards true expertise. In our PGCE year, and our NQT year, we typically receive consistent feedback and we often exist in a state of constant reflection (often with fraught nerves and on the brink of exhaustion!). The problem is that is after the close, consistent weekly coaching process stops then we inevitably plateau as professionals. We must work on the ‘continuous’ aspect of performance development in the truest sense: each day, each week and each term.
In reality, such a focused coaching process could be costly and time consuming. The only answer is for leaders to inspire a culture where teachers undertake ‘deliberate practice’ driven by a desire for betterment; where there is some time facilitated regularly; quality training in groups on pedagogy, not time frittered away in endless meetings. As a subject leader myself, I needed to be trained out of this fallacy. I thought a good meeting was nice and broad – sorting peripheral issues – when greater focus on pedagogy was required (any meeting time is simply too precious – we must find other methods to communicate the day to day business). I also need to work much harder in making meaningful coaching time and ‘deliberate practice’ happen for all the colleagues in our faculty. I would admit to struggling to find the right process to make coaching really meaningful and transformative – more ‘deliberateness’ is still required!
In the last year, on a personal basis, my blog has been a fantastic way to reflect and perform a weekly attempt at ‘deliberate practice‘. I have formed a time and place to execute my habit, which has knocked on to me spending much more time researching and reflecting on the day job. It feels nothing like ‘work‘ in the traditional sense, but it complements my day job brilliantly. As a subject leader, it is actually hard to find time to be coached for my own classroom practice, but the willing audience for my blogs has often filled a void brilliantly, inspiring me onward. My coaching targets have been questioning and improving feedback (the subjects of many of my blog posts). When I read this great blog by Joe Kirby here, an eloquent synthesis of Hattie, it brought me back to our opening faculty meeting this year, when we looked at those very effect sizes and started to size up our own coaching needs. My focus on questioning and honing in on quality feedback – very nearly aligned with Joe Kirby’s blog recommendations. My progress has been flawed, as such things always are. My colleagues and I all need to work on undertaking ‘deliberate practice’ with greater consistency – even as the demands of the day job are legion – but then expertise in anything never came easy, or without considerable time and effort. Crucially, we have to want to commit that time and effort – we must keep on kicking!
Support resources for ‘Action Research’, ‘Deliberate Practice’ and ‘Coaching’: Action Research:
Needs a sign up for full access but useful: http://www.expansiveeducation.net/pages/about-us/action-research
Does what it says on the tin! http://www.actionresearch.net/
Highly recommended by Zoe Elder – need I say more? http://www.jeanmcniff.com/ar-booklet.asp
Quite simply the link of links! http://larryferlazzo.edublogs.org/2012/07/21/the-best-resources-for-learning-about-the-10000-hour-rule-deliberative-practice/
Interesting article: http://calnewport.com/blog/2012/04/09/the-father-of-deliberate-practice-disowns-flow/
Clear and very useful blog: http://lifehacker.com/5939374/a-better-way-to-practice
Great overview of coaching for schools: http://thebeechconsultancy.co.uk/uploads/files/leading-coaching-in-schools.pdf Another good overview: http://www.cfbt.com/evidenceforeducation/pdf/5414_CfT_FINAL(Web).pdf
My faculty based coaching resources: https://huntingenglish.wordpress.com/2012/09/06/keep-getting-better-coaching-in-our-english-media-faculty/
Thank you to @Andyphilipday for the conversation that inspired this blog and to @fullonlearning for the many great links on action research.