How to Model Deliberate Practice in the Classroom
In our prior post we took a look at a very interesting article by Geoff Colvin, one that dispels the notion that ‘natural talent’ was the underlying component to an individual’s success in life. In Why Talent Is Overrated, Colvin insisted that the “conventional wisdom about ‘natural’ talent is a myth” and that “the real path to great performance is a matter of choice.”
Colvin went on to focus in on a very sophisticated concept called deliberate practice. The writer further specified eight characteristics associated with the concept and gave numerous concrete examples from both the world of business and that of professional sports to explain the term.
Though Colvin did not specifically address the concept in terms of the world of education, we could immediately see several important parallels. In fact, several of Colvin’s characteristics were consistent with our recent discussion of the educational shift from a pedagogical to an andragogical focus.
We must note that deliberate practice clearly has certain characteristics that are beyond what is reasonable for a public school teacher to implement in the classroom. However, there are at least four areas that have a great deal of relevance to today’s classroom.
According to Colvin, “Deliberate practice is designed specifically to improve performance with the key word being ‘designed.’ The essence of deliberate practice is continually stretching an individual just beyond his or her current abilities.”
All too often, teachers design a lesson around a set of specific learning objectives for students and then assess students according to how well they met the objectives. However, today’s learning model asks teachers to move towards multiple objectives and to use different levels of assessment so as to individualize learning for each student in the classroom.
What makes the individualization concept so challenging is that it cannot simply mean assigning more work to those students who are able to master concepts easily. Instead, it means designing a lesson that has different entry and exit points for literally each and every student in the room.
All too often, teachers design a lesson that has the entire class beginning at the same entry point and then seeks to have the entire group reach the same end point at essentially the same time. The result is a class that may work reasonably well for the students in the middle but the concept fares very poorly with the students at the extremes.
Ensuring varied start and end points tailored to each student’s progress is the only certain way to properly stretch the skills of each and every student in the room. Stretching every student would be the first step towards modeling deliberate practice criteria in the classroom.
Self-Regulation and Goal Setting
Colvin advised that deliberate practice has a definitive ‘before the work’ component. Specifically, he spoke of goal-setting and self-regulation in these terms:
“Self-regulation begins with setting goals – not big, life-directing goals, but more immediate goals for what you’re going to be doing today.”
Those familiar with the push towards an adragogical classroom approach can clearly see how this element of deliberate practice parallels concepts emerging in the world of education. In fact, one of the fundamental notions of an andragogical focus is to move towards self-directed learning.
Colvin added, “In the research, the poorest performers don’t set goals at all; they just slog through their work. Mediocre performers set goals that are general and are often focused on simply achieving a good outcome. The best performers set goals that are not about the outcome but rather about the process of reaching the outcome.”
Using a pedagogical approach appears to be very counterproductive to this aspect. Because pedagogy features a teacher-centered approach, one that features the person at the front of the classroom doing the goal–setting, there is little student practice with this important concept.
Clearly, if we want students to set goals that are more than simply achieving a good outcome, then they must have the chance to practice being goal-oriented.
Self-Observation and Personal Evaluation
Colvin writes about the importance of self-observation in deliberate practice:
“The most important self-regulatory skill that top performers in every field use during their work is self-observation. Even in purely mental work, the best performers observe themselves closely.”
In the school setting, the focus is generally on feedback from outside observers. In addition, the assessment criteria centers upon a rating scale that is the same for all students.
Colvin stipulates that in deliberate practice, people “are able to monitor what is happening in their own minds and ask how it’s going. Researchers call this metacognition – knowledge about your own knowledge, thinking about your own thinking.”
Such monitoring makes little sense when the teacher is the focus, when he or she is setting the goals, deciding the objectives, and creating the assessment criteria. Only when students are setting their own goals and designing their own learning experiences will they begin to comprehend the meaning of ‘thinking about their own thinking.’
Lastly, in Colvin’s ‘after the work’ component, he notes:
“Practice activities are worthless without useful feedback about the results. These must be self-evaluations” and “the best performers judge themselves against a standard that’s relevant for what they’re trying to achieve.”
In this case, the goals are clearly more than getting an A on a specific project or paper. And for the teacher, it means much more than simply awarding a mark or grade for a project or paper.
Teachers must be able to provide the feedback that would ensure that the student has the chance to raise his or her skill set to reach the standard that student seeks. Colvin offers that within deliberate practice people “sometimes compare their performance with their own personal best; sometimes they compare it with the performance of competitors they’re facing or expect to face; sometimes they compare it with the best known performance by anyone in the field.”
Such goals demand that teachers do much more than assess a student’s work. Instead, teachers must analyze the students product in detail and compare that product to the desired performance standard set by the student, then provide the appropriate feedback that helps the individual student reach their respective goals.
Deliberate Practice in the Classroom
While natural talent may be overrated, deliberate practice is not. In fact, deliberate practice is the place where self-reflection, work ethic and ambition all meet.
Therefore, teachers would do well to incorporate the fundamentals of deliberate practice into their classrooms at every relevant opportunity.