Using Diagnostic Questions
How can we get better at diagnosing gaps in understanding?
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by Durrington Research School
If, like me, you were one of the 9.2 million viewers watching on in awe as Emma Raducanu serenely swept to US open glory on Saturday night, you were probably also wondering how on earth was it possible? As that final ace hit the back boards, it got me thinking about what makes the very best so elite. I would like to think of myself as a pretty competent tennis player (with two coaching qualifications to my name) but the level both those teenagers played that night (and all fortnight) was from a different planet. But the question is what separates us from them.
In 1993 Ericsson, Krampe and TeschRömer proposed that individual differences in performance, largely reflect accumulated amount of deliberate practice, defined as “highly structured activity, with the explicit goal of improving performance”. Using violinists as their study focus, they found a strong correlation between accumulated hours of deliberate practice and ability, with the “best” violinists having accumulated in excess of 10,000 hours of deliberate practice compared to less than 5000 for their “least accomplished teacher” peers.
There are of course other factors at play in achieving mastery such as mental fortitude and resilience. For example, Gobet and Campitelli (2007) found vast variations between the number of deliberate practice hours (3016 up 23,608) needed for different chess players to have reached master level. Similarly, Macnamara et al (2016) found, in their metanalysis study, that deliberate practice may account for less than 20% of total variance in sports performance. You only need to have seen the calm demeanour of Raducanu as she saw two championship points come and go, and then sit through a medical timeout to win a grand slam at only the second attempt to know that there is more to her success than practice. However, as Macnamara et al state deliberate practice, while not the only factor, is an essential piece of the expertise puzzle.
While the intense atmosphere of Arthur Ashe stadium may seem a long way from Year 9 period 6, the idea of practice in elite sport or any other pursuit is equally fundamental to developing subject expertise in our students. High quality explanation, modelling and questioning may all go to waste if students are not given the time to deliberately practice the skills we want them to learn. All to often the opportunity to practice is shoe horned in at the end of the lesson, where it is regularly encroached upon as other parts of the lesson overrun. Furthermore, driven by the fear of not covering some essential piece of knowledge (especially at KS4 and KS5) we run the risk of focusing too highly on pace and content coverage, therefore not giving sufficient time in the curriculum to practice. As a result, students are unlikely to retain the knowledge they have been “painstakingly fed” (Allison and Tharby, 2015).
The problem is, as Daisy Christodoulou puts it, that while practice is vital for skills development, not all practice is equally important or effective. That is what sets the very best apart, not only (amongst many other attributes) do they clock up hours of deliberate practice but they do the right practice. Their practice is purposeful and deliberate. Take Raducanu, that performance, is not the result of endless match practice (although this will have its place) in training or even tour level matches, but the result of hours of narrow and specific task practice, whether this be on her forehand, footwork or serve placement. The common mistake many make with practice is to believe that practicing the final task will lead to improvement in said final task – this way of thinking is fundamentally flawed.
Ericsson differentiates between this final task practice (what he refers to as “work”) and deliberate practice. Take for example a tennis match (work), over the course of a 3 set match a player may only receive a small number of shots that are relevant to a particular weakness – they can protect this or dictate points to avoid it being exposed. In this scenario the area for improvement is not targeted or practiced and therefore unlikely to improve. Whereas in a 3‑hour training session (deliberate practice) tasks/drills can be designed to create hundreds of opportunities for this weakness to be explored, given feedback on, improved and so on. As such deliberate practice respects the limits of the working memory allowing for focus to remain on a limited number of things to improve, resulting in a higher chance of learning/improvement. Furthermore, deliberate practice allows student to develop mental models needed to solve complex problems.
While again the majority of examples in the literature refer to sports when discussing this idea of work vs deliberate practice, the concept is equally relevant in the classroom. It is vital that when giving students the opportunity to practice in class that the tasks students engage with are narrow and specific. When planning we should break down the larger final tasks into the component parts that students needs to master to experience success, and then model these components before allowing students time to practice these. By narrowing the focus of their practice, students working memory is not overloaded and our feedback is much better positioned to improve performance.
Of course, the other thing in regards to practice that we must take from our most elite sports stars is their willingness to overlearn. I have no doubt that Emma Raducanu has probably been hitting her forehand with similar levels of precision and power for years, and could probably do so with her eyes shut; however, does this mean that she will not spend hours every day hitting cross court forehand with her coach? I suspect not – she will do it again and again. As Daniel Willingham says if you only practice until you are perfect you will only be perfect very briefly. We must ensure that our mid to long term planning gives opportunity for regular and sustained practice of the skill we wish our students to develop so that it becomes automatic or long lasting.
How can we get better at diagnosing gaps in understanding?
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