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Sunday / May 28

Developing Student Expertise Through Deliberate Practice

I have a confession to make. Every six months my university requires me to change my password. And every six months I dread doing it. Why? After I follow Temple’s directions on how to change my password on their system, I have to change my settings on my phone, and unfortunately, I always forget how to do so.

Now I’ll admit I’m more technologically-challenged than most people, but I think my experience reflects a crucially important instructional idea. In order to learn something deeply, so deeply that you’ll be able to apply it in new situations, you have to get enough practice. Once every six months just isn’t enough practice, at least not for me.

As Jeff Wilhelm and I explain in Diving Deep Into Nonfiction: Transferable Tools for Reading Any Nonfiction Text, research on the importance of practice was made famous by Malcolm Gladwell (2008). Gladwell argues that ten thousand hours of practice are necessary to become an expert in a field. Anders Ericsson, the author of the study on which Gladwell bases his claim, recently joined with a colleague to respond to that contention (Ericsson & Pool, 2016), explaining that Gladwell got the study wrong in two important ways. First, 10,000 isn’t a magic number. Although much practice is needed to become an expert, the actual amount needed varies by field. But more importantly, Ericsson and his colleague explain that not all practice is created equal. What people need, they claim, is not just practice but rather what they call deliberate practice. Such practice involves constantly pushing oneself beyond one’s comfort zone, following training activities designed by an expert to develop specific abilities, and using feedback to identify weaknesses and work on them. (Ericsson, 2016)

One of the questions we ask in Diving Deep is, How often do schools provide students the kind of deliberate practice they need? Unfortunately, in our experience, the answer is “Very seldom.”

We try to provide a different answer in the instruction we share in the book by modeling how teachers can provide the kind of deliberate practice learners need. Our book is built around the understanding that one of the fundamental differences between good readers and poor readers is that good readers understand what to notice as they read. Following the work of our friend Peter Rabinowitz, to whom we dedicate the book, we call the understandings that good readers have rules of notice. We identify four rules of notice that all good readers of nonfiction apply as they read. In brief, we think that good readers of non-fiction take special care to notice (1) direct statements, (2) calls to attention (for example, repetition or the use of italics), (3) ruptures (that is, any breaks from the expected, for example, a short sentence amidst longer ones), and (4) anything that evokes a particularly strong emotional response.

We provide practice applying these four rules in three primary ways. First, we build all of our instruction around the four rules of notice and create seven lessons in each of four different contexts (noticing the textual conversation, noticing key details, noticing genre, and noticing text structures) that ask students to employ them. That’s 28 opportunities for deliberate practice.

Moreover, one of those seven lessons in each of the four contexts is specifically designed to provide a kind of targeted practice that we call practice in miniature by providing short texts (both those we found and those we wrote) designed to focus students’ attention on a particular rule. For example, we ask students to read a number of letters of recommendation to identify the essential features of the genre and then to notice and make meaning with deviations from those essential features, what we call ruptures.

Third, we select texts in order to create efficiencies that allow for plenty of practice. In the last blog we talked about our use of visual texts. One great benefit of using them is how efficient they are. In one classroom period, students can get repeated opportunities to apply the rules of notice if you use visual texts.

As Jeff is fond of saying, think of anything of great significance you learned to do—from cooking to kissing—and you’ll realize that you didn’t get it right the first time. It takes practice. That why we try to provide lots and lots of it.

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Michael W. Smith, a professor in Temple University’s College of Education, joined the ranks of college teachers after eleven years of teaching high school English. His research focuses on understanding both how adolescents and adults engage with texts outside school and how teachers can use those understandings to devise more motivating and effective instruction inside schools. Michael is the author of Uncommon Core and Diving Deep into Nonfiction.

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