What Is Deliberate Practice?

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By Scott Sterling

The story of Michael Jordan, the greatest basketball player to ever put on sneakers, being cut from his high school basketball team has reached the stuff of legend (a legend that’s true, but legend nonetheless). It’s a story of perseverance—and practice.

The story has implications for any skill that requires effort toward improvement, including teaching. No one enters the first year of teaching as a master. Think tanks don’t clamor to video their lessons for further study. Depending on the school’s dedication to mentoring, it might be sink or swim. Largely, whether or not you make progress and improve in your practice is up to you.

Therefore, deliberate practice is the process of reflecting on your own strengths and weaknesses and figuring out ways to improve your craft. To be truly great, that process never ends.

The deliberate practice cycle

Like most things you try to accomplish in education, it helps to have an organized system in place for your deliberate practice. Reflection is great. Professional development is great. But lacking a plan for either will lessen the effectiveness of your deliberate practice.

Here’s your plan:

  1. Find a model of effectiveness
  2. Set goals
  3. Focus your practice
  4. Receive targeted feedback
  5. Observe and communicate with other teachers


Finding a model

A model for effective teaching can be in the form of an actual teacher, like a mentor or a legendary figure in your own school, or a set of benchmarks and goals to strive for, like Dr. Robert Marzano’s learning map from the Art & Science of Teaching Observation and Feedback Protocol. The point is to have something that represents where you want to go in your practice. If you don’t know where you want to go, how will you know when you’re there?

Setting goals

Just as you work hard to set reasonable, effective goals and scales for your students (you do, don’t you?), you should take the same approach with your own deliberate practice. Establish a systematic approach to reaching the level of your model—the more concrete the better. Don’t use test scores or any other student data. This is about you. Self-reflection, observation, and evaluation are more valuable here.

Focusing your practice

To return to the Michael Jordan analogy, perhaps through study of film, he found that his 18-foot jump shot needed some work. What do you think he worked on throughout his next few practice sessions? The same approach applies to teaching. Find a strategy in which you see areas for growth, then focus on using that strategy in your teaching until it becomes automatic and reliable.

Receiving targeted feedback

It’s unfortunate that in most schools, teachers only receive feedback during their evaluation cycle once or twice during the school year. It’s important for another set of eyes to see the progress you are making in your practice on a more regular basis. Observers need to know what you’re working on, what it looks like, and how to judge your progress based on a concrete scale. Otherwise, you won’t know what still needs work and what you’ve mastered. Think of it as formative assessment for your teaching.

Observing and communicating

You’re incredibly busy. Every teacher is. Planning periods and other “off” times are exceedingly valuable, but if you never see other teachers in action, you start living in a bubble of your own reflection, which becomes warped with time.

You need to avail yourself of observation opportunities to see effective and ineffective strategies at work. Then, you need the opportunity to discuss what you’ve seen with colleagues and superiors in an effort to synthesize what you learned through the experience.

Next week: Scheduling for Maximum Collaboration

Is there anything to add to the deliberate practice cycle? Where do you stand in your own practice? Share your thoughts with your colleagues in the Comments section.

For more information about the Marzano Center’s new Essentials for Achieving Rigor initiative and how it can improve your school’s practice, check out the new Teaching for Rigor: 3 Challenges for Curriculum Directors white paper.

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