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Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Deep Practice: Perfection over Permanence

Deep Practice: Perfection over Permanence

By John Schilawski
Assistant Superintendent
Clark-Pleasant Community School Corporation
Doctoral Student of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University
Ryan Donlan
Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University

We often do what we do in schools, because we have always done it.  Such is the case with policy, practice, and people.  At times, we unearth what we believe are new strategies for “best practice,” either through sound research or deft marketing.  In other cases, something “suspect” hides for a time in plain sight, and we never really discern its shortcomings.
One practice to note is ironically, that of “practice” – a student’s practice with the content and skills that we are trying to teach.  Could it be that we’re doing it wrong?  Possibly, if done in the context of one teacher working with twenty to thirty students at a time, as we believe that we may be fooling ourselves that the guided practice we are monitoring is actually “guided” at all.  Let’s discuss.

As we have believed for some time in K-12 education, guided practice is often the way to assure high levels of learning and retention of material. Independent practice beyond is thought beneficial as well.  Student practice of academic content has been an integral part of pedagogy in K-12 schools for many years.
In consideration of practice’s importance in the mosaic of the teaching/learning experience, a couple of quotes come to mind.

1. “Practice makes perfect,” and
2. “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.”

The initial quote has roots stretching back to a 1500’s proverb; it is speculated that its first use in the United States was by President John Adams, when as a young attorney he offered commentary on his early courtroom performances, “I was too incautious and unartful in my proceedings, but practice makes perfect” (
Legendary Green Bay Packers Coach Vince Lombardi offered us the second quote. It oftentimes reminds us of different experiences in growing from child to adult, such as the repetition of free throws, work on the balance beam, wrestling takedowns, music lessons, marching band drills, musical rehearsals, dance steps, and even plucking away at the violin, to mention a few examples.
We all can put memory, or even a bit of nostalgia, to one quote or the other.

The focus of this discussion is more on “practice” as an academic pursuit, and its value as we are practicing it. The reality is that although practice can help students improve – and in extreme cases can help them to reach master performance – practice can also yield marginal results or even cause a decline in performance.
Ouch.  That’s not what we intend.

One of our favorite reads on the subject is Daniel Coyle’s, The Talent Code (2009), in which Coyle describes a young clarinet student named Clarissa. In this example, he noted the girl in six minutes actually accomplished a month’s worth of learning.  The key was that she didn’t just “practice”; she instead used “deep practice,” along with concentration, determination, and perseverance.  It didn’t hurt that she liked the song and wanted to play it well.
By the way, Clarissa was not a virtuoso; in fact Coyle described her as somewhat mediocre.  Now what is particularly interesting is that after that six minutes spent in deep practice, Clarissa went on to a familiar piece that she performed with relative ease, with few mistakes, yet in reality, did not do it justice.  She simply practiced.  In such, she was not thinking or learning; it was a waste of time.
Coyle believed the differences in results for practice and deep practice lie, in part, in Myelin.  From a neurochemical perspective, Myelin is what the brain produces to wrap around neural fibers.  It insulates them; protects them.  It cerebrally converts, over time, a neurological two-track into a cerebral superhighway.
The thicker the Myelin, the better insulated the electrical impulse, causing information regarding performance to move faster and more efficiently. This is what Coyle believes is “The Talent Code.”
Others have informed our thoughts on practice as well.  Pink (2009) equated intense, highly productive learning with a personal strive for mastery based on a person’s motivation.  He noted this as Type I behavior “fueled more by intrinsic desires” (p. 77).  According to Drive, “The secret to high performance and satisfaction . . . is the deeply held, human need to direct our own lives, to learn and create new things, and to do better by ourselves and our world” (admittedly from the cover jacket, yet we actually read further).  
Think about how long a child will sit in front of a computer navigating and playing games, drawing on paper, playing with PlayDoh, or building with Legos.  Countless hours are spent in this realm of extended learning and expansive creativity.  Watching a child maneuver in Mario world or running the dungeon maze is captivating; they learn through trial and error, problem-solving continually and even more important, leveling-up.
In his treatise on why some children do not like math, Dr. Robert Sun (2014) said, “Interest is a function of proficiency-and proficiency requires practice” (Power of Deep Practice section, para. 1).  He continued, “Through Deep Practice techniques, skills that might take months of conventional practice can be mastered in a matter of weeks or even days” (Power of Deep Practice section, para. 4).  Of course, this has to occur under the right conditions.
So what’s the rub?  Why are we a bit concerned with doing what has always been done? About practice?
In education we all-too-often rely on mass practice and redundancy through repetition –  “skill and drill.”   We’re not here to say that repetition doesn’t have a place in learning; however, we are saying that it should not be a default strategy in lesson design or in anyone’s thoughts on “best practice” in the teaching and learning process.
Hattie (2012) advocated the use of spaced practice rather than mass practice.
Consider the fact that if a child does not understand the order of operation in Math, is it really reasonable to believe that giving him or her fifty additional problems will yield minimal results toward mastery?  From Hattie’s (2012) meta-analysis, spaced-practice verses mass-practice ranked 13th on a list of influences on achievement.  
We contend, building upon the work of Coyle, Pink, Sun, and Hattie, that a child’s spending more time on the task makes little difference in learning.  Rather, it runs the risk of making what one is doing more permanent, than perfect.
One-on-thirty?  We don’t think so. 
With finite human resources a reality, we can still creatively design experiences in which students can be provided the opportunity to practice appropriate, skill-building experiences and strong immediate feedback. In doing so, a few well-structured problems may facilitate a level of deep practice, which produces higher-than-average results in terms of time and effort.
Consider the natural order of one’s curiosity in terms of things relevant, exciting, or of great interest, whether practical or not.  If a child wants badly enough to learn something, he or she will find a way to make it happen. The secret is in our making the connection between what we know is important for children to learn, and what they perceive to be of interest to themselves.  Serving as a choreographer of these connections may very well be our first job as educators; offering opportunities of deep practice in meaningful bursts, with the ability to redirect in-the-moment, may be one of our most important. 
If any argument could be made for increasing content preparation for educators, it would be this:  Pre-service educators need to invest in what our best coaches have -- moment-by-moment efficacy and confidence in the talent-development of their protégés; in fact, that which redirects misaligned permanence, into deep-practiced perfection.
“That,” we could all live with in K-12.      


Coyle, D. (2009). The talent code: Greatness isn’t born.  It’s grown. Here’s how. New York, NY: Natam Dell.
Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. New York, NY:  Routledge.
Pink, D. (2009). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. New York, NY:  Riverhead Books
Sun, B. (2014, August 25). Four letters that will energise america. The London Economic.  Retrieved from

John Schilawski and Ryan Donlan are educational reimaginists who do not hesitate to question what is currently in place and purported to help students achieve.  If you wish to call-them-out on anything they are championing, don’t hesitate to reach-out and begin the conversation at or  They’ll be glad you did!

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