Deliberately practice what?

A few years ago, while still in the U.K., I completed something called the National Professional Qualification for Headship (NPQH) which was intended to prepare me to be the principal of a high school. For this, I had to confect a pressing problem that I was facing in my current work and then an experienced coach asked me lots of Socratic questions over a number of sessions with the intention of drawing the answer out of me. Unlike sports coaching or any other form of coaching I could think of, the coach was barred from providing any advice.

Clearly, this was a bit of a waste of time on everyone’s part and I think it illustrates a key issue: what happens when we value and promote a process without any clear ideas about the objectives of the process.

I was reminded about this when I read a new report by Dean’s for Impact, an American group with the aim of improving teacher education that has previously released an excellent report on the science of learning.

In the new report, Deans for Impact teamed up with Anders Ericsson to make the case for ‘deliberate practice’ in early career teaching. Deliberate practice is something that Ericsson has been researching for a long time and describes practice that is purposeful and designed to maximise improvement. It is based on research into the kind of practice undertaken by individuals who excel in their given field.

Ericsson has worked a lot with sports people. An example of deliberate practice might be improving your golf swing. Many amateur golfers might simply turn up at a driving range and hit a few balls. Deliberate practice would involve knowing your objective – perhaps how far you want to hit the ball – and the specific techniques that you are going to work on today to help reach that objective.

Teaching isn’t golf and this is the problem. What are the objectives? What are the techniques? Both are hotly contested. If I outline a teaching technique that seems to improve student test scores then someone will criticise me for a narrow focus on tests. Some teachers want students to get better at maths whilst others want them to improve their collaborative skills. Some educators think that a skilled teacher should accommodate off-topic conversation. Others do not.

Teaching practices are guided at least as much by ideological concerns about the way we would like teaching to be as they are by concerns about effectiveness. And teacher educators are key in perpetuating these ideals.

I am concerned that a focus on the process – deliberate practice – without a clear shared understanding of the objectives could be a waste of time. Moreover, it could potentially provide a veneer of scientific validity to the status quo. Schools of education can continue to promote teaching practices based upon taste but claim they are being scientific by requiring students to deliberately practice them.

The last few paragraphs of Dan Willingham’s review of Ericsson’s book, ‘Peak’ makes a similar point about the need for agreed objectives and agreement about the teaching skills required to meet those objectives; something that Dylan Wiliam picked up on Twitter:

I am concerned that a focus on deliberate practice places the cart before the horse. I’m sure it can and should be used to improve teacher performance once we have an agreement on what that looks like. However, without such agreement, pursuing it could be a huge diversion and possibly quite harmful.

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2 Comments on “Deliberately practice what?”

  1. paceni says:

    NPQH in Northern Ireland is an essay writing exercise requiring 3 pieces of constructivist work claiming to qualify teachers for headship.Where is the validity construct? I know that versus I know how. If I see the “qualification” cited after a principal’s name the only conclusion I can reach is that they are competent in essay writing, something no longer demanded of pupils.
    One of the reasons for this change in assessment is the responsibility of none other than Dylan Wiliam, part of the infamous pair, Black & William. They developed the “Inside the Black Box” 1998 series claiming to raise standards in the classroom via formative assessment. Their work was cited and promoted by the OECD evetheory when the authors arrogantly admitted that “the success of Inside the Black Box has been as much due to its rhetorical force as to its basis in evidence”. Black & Wiliam acknowledged the initiative of the Assessment Policy Task Group of the British Educational Research Association (Assessment Reform Group), funding via the Nuffield Foundation, Stanford University (who secured funding from US National Science Foundation) and of course 6 Medway and Oxfordshire local education authority schools and 36 teachers who took on ‘the central and risky task’ of turning ded of pupils.
    One of the reasons for this change in assessment of students is the responsibility of none other than Dylan Wiliam, part of the infamous pair, Black & William. They developed the “Inside the Black Box” 1998 series claiming to raise standards in the classroom via formative assessment. Their work was cited and promoted by the OECD even when the authors arrogantly admitted that “the success of Inside the Black Box has been as much due to its rhetorical force as to its basis in evidence”. Black & Wiliam acknowledged the initiative of the Assessment Policy Task Group of the British Educational Research Association (Assessment Reform Group), funding via the Nuffield Foundation, Stanford University (who secured funding from US National Science Foundation) and of course 6 Medway and Oxfordshire local education authority schools and 36 teachers who took on ‘the central and risky task’ of turning the profession away from quantative summative assessment into the morass of AfL where pupils become responsible for their own learning. The problem for formative assessment as an action theory mechanism is that it requires two types of argument: a validity argument to support the quality of inferences about pupils and an efficacy argument to support the impact on learning and instruction.
    Both of these arguments require logical and empirical backing.
    it is worthwhile noting that these changes were taking place around the time that OECD Pisa launched their international education rankings vehicle. The cross references are inescapable with both parties constantly citing the other.
    A decade later Randy Elliot Bennett of Educational Testing Service (ETS) published Formative Assessment: Can the Claims for Effectiveness Be Substantiated? adapted from A critical look at the meaning and basis of formative assessment, ETS 2009.
    Bennett’s paper is summarised by stating that Black & Wiliam’s claims for effectiveness of formative assessment should have been represented more responsibly. As usual education academics are willing to wound but not kill. It is a pity they didn’t think more about the impact of their experimentation upon the children who become unwitting guinea pigs or lab rats prior to foisting unproven action theory mechanisms instead of delivering their day job requirement – teaching.


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