There Will Always Be Feedback: Deliberate Practice and Teaching

I know that this isn’t exactly good news for rookie teachers, but after sixteen years of teaching, there was never a time when I had it all figured out. I made mistakes almost every single day, and while they got smaller and less painful, those little failures never went away.

And this is certainly no news for all teachers, but any time that you make a mistake in the classroom, you will get feedback, and that feedback will be immediate. Students have many ways of letting you know that your lesson is not going the way you planned—yawning, writing notes, gazing out window, saying out loud that they are bored—but they will never fail to let you know what they really think.

I consider myself to be an expert teacher not in spite of those mistakes and all that feedback, but because of it. I didn't get better because I did the same thing over and over again every day for all those years. I know that I got better and better as a teacher because of the way that I responded. I tried something new and then tweaked that, and then tweaked it again.

You might already be familiar with the term “deliberate practice.” Coined by psychologist K. Anders Ericsson, it is the idea that effort alone isn't quite enough. You can read the full study that he published in Psychological Review called “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance” here.

While the focus of this study was largely on elite athletes and musicians, for me, it sounds a lot like what expert teachers do every day. Ericsson says in that study, “The subjects should receive immediate informative feedback and knowledge of results of their performance. The subjects should repeatedly perform the same or similar tasks.” Sounds to me like what I did every day in room H202—repeatedly preformed the same or similar task and got constant feedback on my performance.

There are a few reasons why I think that Ericsson’s study of elite athletes and musicians is so relevant to teachers. Deliberate practice involves lots and lots of repetition. When you teach the same lesson on how to write a grabber for a personal essay or on the three branches of government or on the steps to a multiplication problem, you definitely get plenty of that.

It is done with the goal of getting better at something. I’d say that there are very few teachers who are motivated to improve their performance because they will be monetarily rewarded for it. We want to get better because that student feedback is just so hard to deal with when it’s negative.

But there’s one area where the way that teachers work differs from those experts studied by Ericsson. Deliberate practice as defined by his studies is based on the explicit instruction of an expert or coach, and it is designed to try different methods and tweak those to improve performance. However, classroom teachers are often left to their own devices—they might be observed a few times a year, but that is hardly enough expert feedback to truly improve performance.

And so it is up to you to take that feedback from your students and figure out how to make yourself a better teacher.

During my first few years of teaching, I sat down and took notes at the end of every day. The mistakes that I made were painful enough that I wanted to make sure that I didn't make them again—ever.

Now, the best lessons that I teach are the ones that are covered with years of notes—little additions and tweaks that I have added to get closer and closer to what I really want my classroom to be.

Here are some questions that you can use to reflect on the day’s lessons—its successes, mistakes, and epic failures—so that you can get a little bit better before tomorrow’s class begins.

  • Was there a time or place in the lesson where you were unprepared, where you could have had more information on the topic? If so, what will you do to inform yourself better?
  • Was there a time when your questions were unclear or when you had to clarify or reword what you were asking students? If so, take notes on what you had to add so that they could understand you better.
  • Was there a transition that was tricky or that was too much of a jump? If so, how could you make it more smooth change the order of events in order to make it work better?
  • Was there a piece of your instruction that was too vague or when students didn't get enough information? If so, what could you add to that instruction to make it more specific?
  • Was there a time when students were bored or lost focus during the lesson? If so, what are some possible activities or exercises that might have engaged them more?
  • What was the worst moment in class? What explanations can you find for why that moment went so badly?
  • What would you like to remind your future self about today’s lesson?

(Click here to download a free printable pdf of these questions.)

I know that this is not an easy process. But when we see success as a process, as something to strive for constantly, then reflecting on the mistakes becomes a little more exciting and a little less painful.

Christina Gil was a high-school English teacher for sixteen years, but she recently left the classroom to follow a dream and move with her family to an ecovillage in rural Missouri. She believes that teaching creative writing helps students excel on standardized tests, that deeply analyzing and unpacking a poem is a fabulous way to spend an hour or so, and that Shakespeare is always better with sound effects. When she is not hauling water to her tiny home, she can be found homeschooling her two kids or meeting with her neighbors about the best way to run their village.