Sian Bornes
Development Lead, Teach First

Lead deliberate practice – ‘10 things every teacher educator should know’

Practice is one of the key ways of learning, but is it emphasised enough in teacher training? In the penultimate blog of our '10 things every teacher educator should know' series, we discover how deliberate practice can make a huge difference – not just at the start of a teacher’s career, but throughout.

Every day teachers ask their pupils to practise in their lessons in order to put theory into fluent practice – or bridge what Daisy Christodoulou calls ‘the knowing-doing gap’. As educators and lifelong learners, should our trainee teachers be doing the same as they develop as educators? 

I would argue that it’s not if they should, but how

Doing it on purpose

Ericsson’s deliberate practice is a great starting point for teacher educators supporting trainee development. Ericsson defines deliberate practice as, “purposeful practice that knows where it is going and how to get there.” He says this requires a clear model of what expert performance looks like and what actions need to be taken to achieve that level of performance. This in turn requires guidance and feedback from someone more skilled.
There’s a common myth of ‘the 10,000 hours rule’ (based on a misquoting of Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers: The Story of Success) that places importance on practice. But it isn’t just the amount of time put into practising skills that matters, it’s what and how you practise – and how deliberate the practice is.

Mental models

In Peak, Ericsson talks about the adaptability of the human brain. It’s commonly believed that humans have a limit to what and how much we can achieve. Ericsson challenges this by referring to research in a new area of psychology – the science of expertise – from which the idea of deliberate practice was born. “The right sort of practice carried out over a sufficient period of time leads to improvement. Nothing else”, he argues. 

Put simply, we gain expertise through the improvement of our mental processes, and it’s possible to develop mental models of what ‘good’ looks like in any domain through training. 

All the world’s a stage

To build these mental representations of expertise, all teachers (not just trainees) need time to practise skills and actions to the point of making them automatic. Deliberate practice is largely about seeing teaching as a performance-based profession, so we can practise many of the skills needed until we’ve mastered them and then ‘go live’ in front of our audience (our classes) with the most refined version of our ‘act’. 

Lemov and Woolway in Practice Perfect compare this process to sports coaching, where micro-actions are practised over and over before athletes compete for real. They also make the case that not all practice is equal. Through research and insight into hundreds of classrooms, they conclude that practice needs to be ‘efficiently run, well planned and intentionally executed’ – in other words, deliberate.

Healthy habits

How does deliberate practice benefit trainee teachers, and why have we included it in our series of ten things every teacher educator should know? Quite simply, it sets firm foundations. 

The habit of practice instilled during initial teacher training is a foundation not just for a successful training year, but for a career of continuous improvement. It also instils the ability to adapt in an ever-changing climate of education.   

Getting unstuck

Any professional who has worked with a trainee knows that there are always moments of feeling like they are ‘stuck’ or that they know what they want to do but just don’t know how to go about it. This is where the teacher educator can use practice as a way of strengthening and developing a trainee to move towards mastering the technique, skill or action. Practice is flexible and adaptable, meaning that it’s suitable for everyone. Through practice we can work toward success whilst responding to errors in the moment and correcting them immediately and positively (as a teacher in a classroom would). 

Case study

I was able to use deliberate practice to good effect with one of the NQTs with whom I worked on the second year of the Teach First training programme. When I began working with her, pupils generally entered her lessons in quite a chaotic way. We therefore focused on practising the Threshold technique from Teach Like A Champion 2.0. Threshold supports teachers to focus on the actions they take and words they say to establish a calm and purposeful entry to the classroom by pupils. I supported the teacher to plan and script where she would stand, what she would say and how she would respond to various pupil behaviours, with each step practised deliberately and refined based on my feedback. For this teacher it took time to build the mental models and automaticity that were needed use Threshold effectively, but by focusing on specific actions and phrases, scripting, and rehearsing, she was soon achieving calm starts to lessons that set her classes up for success.

A culture of practice

On a visit to the US to see high-performing Charter Schools the principal of Troy Prep High School in New York once told me: “school is culture”. It’s the customs, habits, beliefs, traditions, mindsets and institutions of a nation of people. We as Teach First and as teacher educators are a ‘nation of people’ with a common culture. For me, practice is one of the core habits helping us to support the development of exceptional trainee and early career teachers.

About the author

Sian is a teacher educator working for Teach First in the East Midlands. Find her on Twitter @sbornes722.

About this series

We train thousands of new teachers each year, but this is only around 5% of all new teachers. So we wanted to share some of the thinking behind our teacher education in this series of blogs. We hope these blogs will be helpful for the thousands of schools that support new trainee teachers each year, and act as a starting point for conversations with other teacher educators – so we can all keep learning and improving. 

This is our current thinking but we’re always reviewing and learning from research, other organisations and practice. We want your views and feedback: What do you agree with? Is there anything you disagree with? What have we missed? Let us know on twitter – you can chat to our teacher education leads @FayeCraster and @Reuben_Moore (and we’re on @TeachFirst

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