Moving from Naive to Deliberate Practice as Teachers

Comedians have often questioned why we say that a doctor is “practicing medicine.” We really don’t want that doctor to be practicing on us. And we laugh. But when asking a physician to explain the term seriously, they may tell you that they have studied medicine to the fullest extent possible through the graduate programs, but that they practice it for the rest of their careers in order that they will become the best that they could be for their patients.

At a recent meeting in Florida, Dr. Robert Marzano encouraged me to read a book by Anders Ericsson called, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. In his book, Ericsson helps the reader think about what it means to become a true expert. Most of the time, raw talent is not enough. I would encourage you to read the book, but in today’s blog, I simply want to reflect on 3 of Ericsson’s points and how they apply to the profession (or practice) of teaching.

According to Ericsson, there are three types of practices

  1. Naive Practice
  2. Purposeful Practice
  3. Deliberate Practice

As I read his descriptions, I immediately began thinking of good teachers in each of these areas of practice. The teacher who is in the naive practice category is the one that just knew he or she was going to be a teacher in the second grade. They organized their friends on Saturday to sit and listen as they taught in the living room of their house. They breezed through their undergraduate education program because they were simply natural at what they have done and they received accolades for it.

The teacher who is in the purposeful practice area of their life may or may not have been a natural, but they have found they have intentionally begun to engage in improving their teaching through a process of self-reflection. After each lesson, unit, and quarter they go back and analyze what worked and what did not work. They are critical of their own journey and they want to improve. In recent years, I think teachers have been taught to do this well. We’ve been encouraged to reflect and move forward.

Purposeful practice, according to Ericsson, is similar to the notion that it takes 10,000 hours to become great at anything. Whether you are playing a violin or tennis, you need constant repetition and work to become great. But for most of us, talent and repetitive practice (even 10,000 hours) will not get us to the point where we are at the top of our professional capacity. To do that, we need to embark on deliberate practice.

Deliberate practice is when a person, after reflection, realizes that they need to have support from others if they are going to continue to improve. This level of practice is not always natural for teachers, but the best teachers and schools are beginning to open themselves to deliberate practice. These are teachers that come together and help each other perfect their instruction. These are the teachers who seek help in reaching the students that seem to be struggling.

The greatest athletes in the world all realize that they could only go so far with their own talent. Olympians, for example, are surrounded by some of the best coachings so that they can go from great athletes to world-class athletes. We may not all be able to become world-class athletes, but if we are teachers, we need to do everything in our power to become world-class teachers. Start by asking your peers to give you honest feedback and ideas on improvement. Take advantage of outside instructional support. Find people that will help you hone your skills as a teacher. Challenge yourself to try something that is out of your area of comfort, but has been proven to work in other places. Finally, read and learn about trends in education and brain science so that you can become the best possible teacher you can be.


Eric Kellerer

by Eric Kellerer

Eric Kellerer is currently the Director of the Doceō Center and the Director of International Relations at Northwest Nazarene University. The Center, established in January, 2013 exists to inspire personalized learning through innovative practices in education. The Center is responsible for the development of the H.A.C.K. Model for Innovative Instruction. He is currently involved in education reform movements in Liberia and China. He has established relationships with universities and high schools in China, Korea, and Liberia.