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.