Deliberate Practice

“Expert performers…are nearly always made, not born.”

Natural Talent
In their book Superfreakonomics, Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner tackle a vast array of intriguing topics, from the economics of prostitution to the algorithms that identify terrorists. Citing Dr. K. Anders Ericson, they write, “The trait we call natural talent is vastly overrated.” What determines success, according to Ericson, is deliberate practice.

Deliberate practice has three key components: setting specific goals, obtaining immediate feedback, concentrating as much on technique as on outcome.

Deliberate Practice
What does this mean for teachers? Certainly not that these three factors can help us churn out expert carpenters, writers, lab technicians and nurses in 90 days. But they do provide us some simple reminders about how to approach long-range skill development with our students.

  1. Goals—seldom will our students set specific performance goals of their own, so part of our job is to identify and assess specific learning goals based on student need—and I don’t mean simply restating the goals in the SCOS. An art student might need to work on accurately expressing spatial relationships. A student writer might need to provide supporting evidence.
  2. Feedback—immediate feedback is nearly impossible in our profession, at least when it comes to grading labs, projects, and papers, but if we want our students to develop skills, we must respond clearly, specifically, and promptly to their work. Those teachers who coach students individually as they paint a still life, slice open a frog, or compose a conclusion help their students develop skills even if they can’t grade sixty assignments in 24 hours.
  3. Technique—Baseball players want to hit homeruns, but baseball coaches can’t coach batters just by telling them to hit harder. They rely on providing feedback on technique—grip, timing, weight transfer. The same is true in the classroom. Teachers can produce significant gains in skill development when their feedback is less about overall quality and more about specific technique—less about the quality of sound from the cello and more about the motion of the bow.

There are no surprises here. None of this is new. But sometimes it helps to have a reminder.

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