Deliberate Practice

My son is a keen but fairly mediocre member of an U9 football team. However, he has great hand-eye co-ordination (potentially an excellent cricketer) and has posted 38s for 50m freestyle (he’s been swimming from very young, is big and strong, and seems to have a remarkable ability to listen and respond to coaching when it applies to body movement). So, generally sporty, but why not so good at football, despite wanting to be?

His problem is that his decision-making under pressure is not great on the football pitch. Now I really know diddly-squat about invasion games so this is all speculative, but here’s what I think is going on and how it relates to teaching.

I know when I play football, my problem is that I am good at thinking about my position on the pitch when I don’t have the ball. I’m often in great space and very rarely get caught out of position in defence. When I’m watching I can see the play and call the pass. My skill level is so-so but I can control and kick a ball alright. What I cannot do for the life of me is put any of those things together when I have the ball. The moment I get it I just have this sense of ‘man-on’ and I can maybe get a pass away but it tends to be pretty blind. My son’s the same, plus a little bit of fear of giving the ball away, that means he often makes a pass to nothing rather than travelling with the ball or making a better pass. But he is improving. The thing that is having an impact is a coaching session he goes to that’s completely separate from his team. A typical sequence involves having 4 groups of 3 players, all on a 20mx20m square. The drill is to form a triangle and pass in and out to the middle player, constantly moving between passes. If you picture that, there is a massive amount of movement to process with passes having to be spotted and threaded through the other 9 players on the pitch. They do this again, and again – maybe 20 minutes with breaks for feedback. Slowly, but surely, my son is becoming a better player than me (not a high bar but still…).

What has this to do with teacher training? I’m well aware the physical skill analogy has been around for a good while now. As @LornaShires pointed out, just because Deliberate Practice (DP) works for shooting basketball free throws, doesn’t mean it will work for teachers. Also, it’s pretty clear that whilst DP is important in reaching a high level in golf, music, chess, high jumping, catching and throwing or whatever, both teaching and invasion games are more dynamic than any of those things. Also, the 10,000 hours rule Malcolm Gladwell popularised isn’t supported by more recent evidence. Some people seem to reach very high levels of performance much quicker than others.

Nonetheless, my hunch is that if we could find ways for novice teachers to get more of the right sort of DP at an early stage, I think they might progress faster than is typically the case now. I know some people have been working on this – see Deans for Impact, and work by Harry Fletcher-Wood – and TLAC training is largely predicated on this. However, whilst I can see some value there’s a problem I’m not sure we’ve really got to grips with, yet.

To play football my son needed to spend a good bit of time getting good at kicking and controlling a ball. That’s quite clearly come from practice, at least some of which has been DP. However, it’s a pretty static skill if you just practise passing. I think it’s the same for teaching. Practising responses to specific disruptive behaviour, or clear explanations, or boardwork, seems to definitely be useful (one which the majority of current models of ITT don’t have enough time for). But however good my son gets at striking the ball, it isn’t going to make him a really good footballer. Same for the classroom. It’s those dynamic skills – responding to 30 children in real time – that matter.

I’ve been reading The Sports Gene, following a recommendation on Twitter – possibly from @DylanWiliam. The first chapter is about occlusion tests. The original research involved slides from volleyball matches. People were shown these for a very short time period and then asked whether or not the ball was visible in the frame. Similar research,  identifying the speed with which performers at different levels can identify salient information, has been carried out for a number of sports, for air traffic controllers, and for chess players. There has also been some work on this with teachers. Consistently, experts can extract information massively faster, in their own domain. It seems as though maybe two things are going on: experts focus on areas that provide key information – top tennis players identify the direction of a shot from the torso whilst merely good players have to wait for the arm movement; and experts have stronger schemas in LTM so can process complex situations more effectively.

This makes me wonder whether there is a stage for trainee teachers, beyond some basic DP of more static skills, where something more like my son’s football training would be useful. If you look at this framework for types of practice, it feels to me like this is sitting in a column like ‘scrimmage’ but in blue, not red. You see, the clever thing about those drills is that by having small groups all working in the same space, some of the complexity of a match is created whilst keeping the drill quite simple. I wonder about getting a trainee teacher cohort working in groups, with several ‘teachers’ having to talk to a group each, whilst scanning and spotting a primed low-level disruption in the room. However, I don’t think having multiple ‘teachers’ working in the same room is going to work for all classroom skills. I do wonder whether there is potential for classroom video and even Augmented Reality (AR) to play a role. Things like having very short video clips, where expert teachers have identified things to spot (someone turning to their neighbour, the unlikely chuckle in a pair discussion, the unopened book or pencil that’s still on the desk, or the child writing instead of listening). Or recordings of children’s oral answers that need instant feedback. I can think of quite a few possibilities like this. There are some GDPR and ethical challenges, particularly with use of video where children are identifiable but these can be overcome. It is also a lot of work to create high quality resources. I would be really interested to know if anyone’s doing, or thinking about doing, this sort of thing.


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