How can I convince students that deliberate practice is worth it?

I quite like Cal Newport.  I’ve been reading his blog for a while, though I haven’t yet sprung for one of his books.

One of the things that got be thinking this week was a post of his here.  It got me thinking about how I might be able to encourage my students to develop the skills of deliberate practice, particularly for my GCSE and A-Level kids.

Deliberate Practice, huh?

The concept of deliberate practice is that you spend time focusing on those areas you find hard.  You really drill down to the basic skills of those areas and you get better at the stuff you currently suck at.  Then you get better at that and focus at something else you struggle with.

From Cal’s blog here:

Geoff Colvin, an editor at Fortune Magazine who wrote an entire book about this idea, surveyed the research literature, and expanded the DP definition to include the following six traits (which I’ve condensed slightly from his original eight):

  1. It’s designed to improve performance. “The essence of deliberate practice is continually stretching an individual just beyond his or her current abilities. That may sound obvious, but most of us don’t do it in the activities we think of as practice.”
  2. It’s repeated a lot. “High repetition is the most important difference between deliberate practice of a task and performing the task for real, when it counts.”
  3. Feedback on results is continuously available. “You may think that your rehearsal of a job interview was flawless, but your opinion isn’t what counts.”
  4. It’s highly demanding mentally. “Deliberate practice is above all an effort of focus and concentration. That is what makes it ‘deliberate,’ as distinct from the mindless playing of scales or hitting of tennis balls that most people engage in.”
  5. It’s hard. “Doing things we know how to do well is enjoyable, and that’s exactly the opposite of what deliberate practice demands.”
  6. It requires (good) goals. “The best performers set goals that are not about the outcome but rather about the process of reaching the outcome.”

What is the alternative?

Spending hours doing the things you are good at and ignoring those things that are hard.  After all, it does feel good to be able to get things right and there are times when we need to have confidence built up.  I know the students who just do that though – use up all of their Maths study time tackling topics and areas well within their comfort zones.  This doesn’t work or at least wont help them become better.

What is needed for this to work?

I guess it comes down to knowledge of the curriculum and good assessment.  We need to know what we are studying and how good we are at it.

For Year 10s I have started to use Moodle to organise my curriculum, to collect useful resources and to hopefully engage in useful conversations along the way.  I’m trying to populate this with quick self-marking self-assessments to let students check they have the basics of each topic, especially as some of them we visit briefly in Year 10 and wont necessarily look at in class again until Year 11.  Year 11s don’t have much beyond revision guides to help them see what we have done and what we have left to do.  Need to do some thinking on how to help them with this, maybe post-mock is a good time to fix this.

In terms of assessment, there are obviously tests and mocks – breaking these down and analysing.  We also do peer and self-assessment though I’m not convinced that students have recorded this in a helpful way to help them when they come to revise.  (Another post maybe?)

How can I convince students that this is worth it?

We’ve all tried the lecturing at way to convince people of our ways, to little or no effect.  I want to get to the emotions, to make them believe that this is something that is important to do.  Do I tell them stories of people this has worked for?  Sports people and musicians who are world class all work like this.  I read Made to Stick over the summer – maybe I should apply those ideas to this? (Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional, Stories)

That’s my thinking so far, I’m going to go away and see how I’m going to communicate this thinking to my students.

Have you tried this or something similar?  How have you convinced students that it is worth the pain?  How have you helped them see the futility of their old ways of working?

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