Deliberate Practice

Along with a passion for mathematics education, I am also a pretty big sports geek.  Some of it is the numbers that go along with every sport.  For me, it started as a kid growing up in Oakland with easy access to both the Oakland A’s and the San Francisco Giant’s baseball teams, and trying to collect every baseball card in existence.  Oh the joy of comparing stats and arguing who was better based off of those cards!  Since then, I have diversified and there are very few sports that I don’t enjoy watching or playing.  So, it may come as no surprise that I was recently reading an article by James Clear about Ben Hogan who is a very famous golfer from the 1950’s, for those who follow these types of things.

Ben was known for his incredible practice ethic.  He would hit golf balls for hours working on different parts of his swing until other golf experts said he had the most beautiful and effective swing ever.  His practice wasn’t about mindless repetitions, but rather it was focused with the specific goal of improving performance.  It was a kind of deliberate practice.  The article said, “The greatest challenge of deliberate practice is to remain focused.  In the beginning, showing up and putting in your reps is the most important thing.  But after a while we begin to carelessly overlook small errors and miss daily opportunities for improvement.  This is because the natural tendency of the human brain is to transform repeated behaviors into automatic habits….the more we repeat a task, the more mindless it becomes.”

I can’t help but immediately jump to how the idea of deliberate practice in sports relates so well to the ideas within professional noticing in teaching.  As beginning teachers, we are just trying to cut through the chaos and figure out what is important.  In other words, we are figuring out what to notice.  But it is incredible how once we get comfortable within our classroom, we quickly start to make our repeated behaviors and routines of the classroom into automatic habits.  We no longer are being deliberate in our practice.  Our reflection of the process is little or none.  Sometimes, this is because our plates are full and we feel overwhelmed, but other times we simply aren’t pushing ourselves to focus and attend to the small errors and opportunities for improvement that are happening within our teaching practice.  

Are you on “cruise control” in your classroom right now?  Ask yourself, “What is one thing I can focus on during class tomorrow that will improve my practice?”  Maybe it’s as simple as changing the questions you are asking during a certain lesson, or increasing wait time to allow more students to develop responses.  Whatever it is, as you attend to what you are doing, you will get new responses from your students that you will need to interpret and then attempt to infer their meanings.  As you do that you will have to decide how to respond and you will have taken the first steps in creating change and growth in your practice – which is never a bad thing.

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