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The Imperative Nature of Deliberate Practice

By Dave Stuart Jr.

post image -- deliberate practice

So, guys. Guess what? My pop-up debate Teacher Innovator project was one of seven winners of the prize!

It won! And that's because of you.

I don't know what I'm more excited about:

  • the fact that hundreds of you believed in the project enough to vote for it;
  • the fact that this summer I'll fly to Philadelphia to learn how to turn my idea into a real-deal research project;
  • the fact that, while in Philadelphia, Angela. Duckworth. will teach my Teacher Innovator cohort how to conduct research (it's really hard for me not to break out dancing at that one);
  • the fact that I get to meet the staff at Character Lab (#ifIwasn'tateacherI'dwanttoworkthere) and the other Teacher Innovator winners — all people far brighter than me who will make me better and sharper;
  • the fact that our little boy “pop-up debate” is going to get all growed up before we know it;
  • the fact that, over the next year, I get to share this process with all of you;
  • or the fact that, over the next year, my family will receive $10,000 for my work on this project.

In short, it is all very overwhelming. I've never experienced a competition like this where my work actually won, and I don't take for granted how many great projects did not end up in the final seven. I owe so much to the way that you, as a community, have pushed my thinking, encouraged my heart, and sharpened my character. I mean, almost three years ago, Teaching the Core didn't exist — and your sharing and commenting and word of mouth have built it into the community it is today.

In other words, thank you.

And in case you're curious and you missed it, I shared my entire application in a recent post (again: this Character Lab work will be available to you if you so desire to follow it), and you can expect more writing on character and pop-up debate in the year to come as I seek to make the strategy as robust and replicable as possible and test my hypothesis about how it can improve character growth in my students.

Three folks who deserve special thanks

Three people served the “spark” role in this effort toward the Teacher Innovator grant — they started the fire. I want to publicly thank Tanya Ramm for making me aware of the grant, and I want to thank Erica Beaton for help with brainstorming (she said, essentially, “Hey, dummy — do pop-up debate”), and I want to thank Anne Kostus for writing my letter of recommendation for the first round of the grant in the midst of the insanity known as her job.

Iron sharpens iron; you sharpen me.

What does this prize have to do with deliberate practice, and why should readers care?

During my research for the second phase of the grant application, I came across an element of grit that's been almost virtually absent from how I try teaching my students to be more persistent.
That missing piece was deliberate practice, and I owe an Angela Duckworth interview for the epiphany (click here if the embedded player below isn't working).

Here's a brief outline of Dr. Duckworth's remarks from the video:

  • 00:06 – Is there a path to success that doesn't lead through grit?
  • 00:16 – Why do you study grit?
  • 00:39 – What does it take to have grit?
  • 00:50 – How do you spot grit in students?
    • Sustained, high-quality effort — basically a large quantity of deliberate practice
  • 01:13 – Grit requires interest, too.
  • 01:47 – Long-term interests vs. short-term interests.
  • 02:22 – How do you teach grit?
    • “Do we even know for sure that you can teach it? No, we don't! Character skills are not entirely genetic,” however, so “that gives you some hope that you can teach [grit], but not all of experience is didactic teaching. In particular, we're working on the idea that kids may not have accurate beliefs or understanding about practice.”
    • Note from Dave: that last piece is what sparked my project's hypothesis.
  • 02:45 – Misunderstanding #1: the importance of deliberate practice.
    • Many kids would say that practice matters a little, but in fact it matters a lot: “the hidden hours of screw-ups and mistakes…” matter a ton.
  • 03:12 – Practice should feel hard.
    • When experts conduct “the kind of practice that makes them better,” they frequently experience frustration, setbacks — even boredom.
    • Why boredom? Because it's working on the same things again and again and again. It's not just going home tonight and working on your math really hard, it's doing that tomorrow and the next day and the next day…
    • Therefore we're trying to teach kids not just to expect these feelings when they're doing the right kind of practice, but actually to reward themselves. “Oh, I just studied for half and hour and was totally confused. Great!”
  • 04:16 – Getting feedback is a necessary part of practice.
    • “Kids need to seek feedback, especially when it's not given to them. They need to be proactive in and out of the classroom to make sure they're closing the feedback loop.”
  • 04:40 – Grit at home
    • “[In our home], we have a rule that everybody has to do a hard thing.”
  • 04:59 – What's the message of this “do hard things” rule?
    • We all have a responsibility to be doing hard things. There is some freedom, some say, in deciding what those things are — but we can't quit in the middle of them, and we can't quit on bad days.

“But Dave — grit is just a buzzword; aren't you against those?”

Back when I wrote about the death of close reading a year or so ago (rest in peace, big buddy), some smart readers said, “Yeah! Let's hear an obituary for grit!”

Truly, grit is at risk of death by buzzwordification — but that's mostly because folks are chucking the word around haphazardly without any close attention to what it means. That's what buzzwordification is.

So it's obviously harmful to view grit as a silver bullet, as a cure-all, as The One Thing all kids need for a flourishing life.

But I've got to tell you that there's a big difference between close reading and grit. Few successful people — and I'm defining success broadly there — will say that their success is ultimately attributable to the ability to closely read and analyze texts; many will attribute their success to a dogged determination to get to the bottom of a question or the top of an area of expertise. That's grit.

To avoid buzzwordification, do things like watching the Duckworth video above. Visit Character Lab's grit page. Read K. Anders Ericsson's paper. Read the work of Daniel Coyle (if you haven't read The Little Book of Talent, do so — it's blessedly compact; all books should come in small and large sizes).

In short, resist the silver bullet thinking that underlies buzzwordification and damages the educational landscape every year. Instead: Do the work. Pursue the questions.

Still, Dave: what does your project have to do with deliberate practice?

The reason gritty people tend to succeed is because they have the chops for the deliberate practice needed to become great at things. Duckworth and Peterson put this elegantly in their paper “Grit: Perseverance and Passion for Long-Term Goals” when they conclude that success comes not from mere talent, but from the “sustained and focused application of talent over time.”

In short, gritty people use a passion for something to fuel the long, steady drive to greatness at that thing. And at no point in the drive to greatness is this more critical than during the hundreds and thousands of hours of deliberate practice needed to become great.

The problem, though, is that practice is widely misunderstood; when we think of practice, we picture the Rocky montages (I've written about this before) — not blood and sweat and tears.

So this was the breakthrough in my thinking during the application process for the Teacher Innovator grant — what if instead of trying to help my kids grow grit, I help them grow an accurate understanding of both the nature and the reward of deliberate practice?

To put that in hypothesis form –>

Hypothesis: If I implement a series of in-class pop-up debates, then my students will gain an accurate understanding of both the nature and the reward of deliberate practice.

I've been doing pop-up debates for over three years now — many of you have generously supported my blog by purchasing the $1+ Pop-Up Debate Starter Kit. I know in my gut that they help with content retention, engagement, argumentative skill, confidence, and public speaking.

But I also know that kids tend to plateau with pop-up debate — they get over the fear of public speaking and sort of feel like they are good enough.

But what if they could see themselves debate?

Want to make me a better public speaker? There's probably nothing you can do that will be more brutal than filming me and making me watch it.

I think many of you agree: it's no fun watching yourself talk on camera.

But why is that? I think it's because video forces us to see the chasm between our perception of how well we speak and the reality of how we do it.

So, what if I could get the majority of my students to see their pop-up debate performances within 24 hours of each debate, and then lead them in a simple reflection/goal-setting exercise to guide them in preparing for their next debate? There are some decent logistical issues here, obviously — and I'll need to overcome those if this project is to be truly replicable — but I simply can't think of another way to give kids the kind of feedback deliberate practice depends on.

Just to clarify, I've not added the video component to pop-up debate before, and, honestly, I'm really not saying you should, either. Let me test it out to see if it works. I've just heard from a few folks who do use video that it has some interesting effects, and I think it can help push my students past the pop-up plateau they often camp out on.

My goal

At the end of the twelve pop-up debates (click here for a full timeline of the project), my students will have a neat opportunity: they'll get to compare footage from one of our earliest debates with one of our last ones. My hope is that they'll see big improvement and that the improvement will be most pronounced for those who engaged in the most deliberate practice.

If we achieve that, the next trick will be transfer. Can students take their new, experiential knowledge of deliberate practice and apply it to math homework? To the study of history?

Friends, I don't know. I rarely do. That's why I like this job.

In sum

There is no substitute for the work. We are constantly in pursuit of answers to big questions: how do we best help students build flourishing lives? How do we help them develop the character strengths that will be integral to whatever they set out to do? I always love hearing your ideas; thank you again for your inspiration and support.

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17 Responses to The Imperative Nature of Deliberate Practice

  1. semslibrarylady April 14, 2015 at 11:21 am #

    I’m commenting before I have time to read the whole article, because I just wanted to say CONGRATULATIONS!!! and throw confetti and streamers around the room! This is well-deserved recognition of both your hard work and your awesomeness! 6th graders are invading my library shortly for a videoconference, so I will be happily hiding in my workroom with a laptop to devote some time to a full reading of this article. Just skimming it made me see it’s something I’ll be sharing with my teachers. Congrats again, Dave!

    • davestuartjr April 14, 2015 at 1:09 pm #

      Mary, thank YOU for supporting me from the very start of my blog to today. Your belief in me has made me believe in myself enough to do things like apply for this grant. THANK YOU, Mary, for your kindness!

  2. Tyler Nadeau April 14, 2015 at 2:21 pm #

    Congratulations Dave!! Your hard word does not go unnoticed and I am so thankful that I have a great mentor and friend like you. In regards to your last post, humility has been a focal point for me since I finished student teaching. I had to get up, brush myself off and remember that no matter what I made a difference in at least one life! To this day, I can not imagine having any other career. I love working with my students at the virtual high school. They see a hope that they may not have otherwise been able to experience. Thank you for sharing, my dear brother. Hope all is well!

    • davestuartjr April 14, 2015 at 3:29 pm #

      Tyler, thank you so much, man. May we both keep growing and reflecting and living out our calling!!!

  3. Lisa Varn April 14, 2015 at 3:11 pm #

    Congratulations! My students and I love pop-up debate. I’m really excited to see where you can go with it. Thank you for sharing the journey with us.

    • davestuartjr April 14, 2015 at 3:30 pm #

      Lisa, thanks so much — it’s comments like yours that make me pumped to put some earnest thought into this strategy during the summer months. I hope to be able to provide much more clarity and guidance in terms of making the most out of pop-up in the classroom.

  4. Tom Schiele April 14, 2015 at 3:11 pm #

    Dave, this is outstanding news! Congratulations.

    • davestuartjr April 14, 2015 at 3:31 pm #

      Tom, thank you! Another reason for a pint of bitter in Vegas this summer at Nationals.

  5. Ica R. April 14, 2015 at 6:13 pm #

    Congratulations! I’m really excited to see how this project turns out for you and your students. Thanks for opening the window to all of us and letting us see!

    • davestuartjr April 15, 2015 at 6:48 am #

      Thank you so much, Ica. I will keep the window open 🙂

  6. Thelma Anselmi April 14, 2015 at 7:48 pm #

    Congratulations, Dave! You’ve worked hard for this and we’re proud of you! I eagerly await your next steps.

    • davestuartjr April 15, 2015 at 6:51 am #

      Thelma, thank you so much. You guys are why I had this opportunity — I know that.

  7. Denise April 14, 2015 at 9:45 pm #

    Congratulations! I’m so excited for you! And us! Because I know you will bring us along on this journey with you.

    • davestuartjr April 15, 2015 at 6:36 am #

      Thank you Denise! You guys will be there 🙂

  8. jdwyer2013 April 15, 2015 at 7:16 am #

    Congratulations! May your journey be filled with interesting moments. Learning is such an interesting path.

  9. jessicalange2014 April 15, 2015 at 8:04 am #

    Congratulations!! I’m excited to see where this project goes. Also, thank you for clarifying grit as more than just determination, but also practice. I think sometimes adults forget that we also need to practice and refine our skills, just like kids. Anyways, thanks and have a great day!

  10. Holly April 19, 2015 at 12:45 pm #

    Congratulations and a well-earned high five. I am so glad to have stumbled across your site and posts. You discuss and share so well what needs to be on the table when talking about the teaching profession. Thank you.

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