- Effective Practice pushes students to expand their comfort/skill zone.
- Top Performers move to the "I suck at this zone" on purpose - and stay there to perfect a specific skill.
- In most cases, top performers need a teacher to draw them into the "I suck" zone.
"…deliberate practice requires that one identify certain sharply defined elements of performance that need to be improved, and then work intently on them. "(Geoff Colvin, Why talent is overrated.")
Deliberate practice: How often does that happen in a busy ESL classroom? And more importantly, and given the vital role of the teacher in this process, how often do we make time to CREATE and Deploy deliberate practice opportunities in our classrooms? I venture to suggest that course design, text-books, and even our own teaching styles are pretty far away from the concept of deliberate practice.
I spent a lot of time reflecting on Colvin’s article - and came to some pretty gut wrenching conclusions:
I think far too many times, my classwork leaves students very safely in their comfort zones. The definition of deliberate practice says that work is being done on specific areas of weakness - usually only one area at a time. What needs to be improved is clearly identified by the teacher and maybe even the student, and the teacher develops practice that will improve that specific ability. Practice on that specific area of weakness is repeated often, until mastery occurs.
Question: who has time to do this? The whole process sounds like a luxury - a dream! A dream in that a teacher could actually find a student who is willing to subject him/herself to such focused and painful work. (Because it would be painful to hammer away at the same thing - perhaps from differing angles - until mastery occurs.) Most students I know want instant results. They want fluency, and they want it yesterday and would complain bitterly if you dwelt on a theme or area for more than a few days.
Few have accepted the idea that language learning often requires years of dedication and practice. (I know this is true because I hear ESL company commercials on the radio almost every day that promise to make you bilingual in a matter of months - the marketers throw this out, because it’s exactly what the public wants to hear and believe.)
Deliberate practice is a hard sell - but I wonder if we ( the teachers) need to learn how to sell it to our students. (Heck - while we’re selling, we should be sure that we’re sold on it ourselves…) Maybe it’s a metacognition issue, where we need to learn how to help students see and understand the need to break away from their comfort zone, and step into "I suck"- and stay there for a while with the objective of top performance.
Maybe that’s how you sell it - help your students paint a mental picture of where they want to be with their language skills, but then help them connect to the distance between where they are now, and where they want to be. In this distance, you can help your student identify those vital skills that need to be developed, and then work together to create exercises that will eventually produce results in those specific areas of opportunity. This is where the "sell job" needs to happen. I think a student will happily go with you up to this point - after all, you’re helping him/her identify areas of growth opportunity. But this is the crucial space - where the teacher may need to put down their lesson planner and text books - and don their best sales hat. Success from here on in, will depend on how well we can sell our student on the idea of deliberate practice. It will also deeply depend on how well we design our future lessons.
What do you think? If deliberate practice could help students improve, how could you effectively deploy it in your classroom? And how could you sell it to your students?