Practicing skills and concepts is an important part of the learning process; however, just repeating a skill does not lead to improvement. Deliberate practice is the idea that the work being done is challenging enough to stretch the student, but not so challenging as to be frustrating.
Deliberate Practice Improves Skills without Dread
The idea of “scaffolding” learning was first put forward by Lev Vygotsky, who discussed the Zone of Proximal Development, an area of challenge that is just beyond the learner’s current ability, but not so much so as to make them give up.
As a Montessori guide, I’m grateful that observation is part of how we determine what to present to students and when. When “making the match” between the student and their interest in a concept by selecting an appropriate challenging lesson, it’s time for the guide to step out of the way and make space for deliberate practice by the student. Yet we don’t leave them to their own devices vulnerable to boredom or frustration.
I remember a former fourth year student of mine that was trying to improve his handwriting. Years of indirectly being prepared for handwriting gave him the hand strength and fine motor coordination to do so, yet his “b” continued to be mistaken for an “l” next to an “r”, and his frustration with his illegible writing was creating a negative attitude in other areas of his learning.
After consultation with the student, we created a plan together for deliberate practice in which he spent a certain amount of time every day practicing the foundational ellipsoids, loops, connectors, and other essential components of cursive.. Part of his time improving this skill was focused on writing the same sentence over and over, analyzing for minute corrections and repeating them carefully and perfectly. In several months, we compared sample writings from before his deliberate practice and after, and he was astounded by his improvement!
Montessori captures this Zone of Proximal Development in the implementation of curriculum. When learning something new, students receive lessons for the materials that take them from the concrete to the abstract, each lesson being more difficult and introducing a new concept to extend the learning.
The learning is scaffolded to help support learners in the early stages, but as they gain mastery, lessons become more challenging as fewer supports are needed to perform them. Following the child individualizes the instruction and means students are allowed to go at their own pace. They can continue to work with a material on a particular lesson until they have mastered it without feeling the pressure to “keep up” with the rest of the class.
In other words, the challenges they face are geared to their ability and stretch them appropriately.
Free Quick Tip #5 to Cultivate Deliberate Practice
My tip for increasing deliberate practice in your classroom community is to observe your students. Hone your own practice of observation by doing it frequently with an eye towards finding each student’s Zone of Proximal Development.
The rewards are multifold: you will expand your own repertoire of skills while increasing the likelihood that you’ll make a better match of student to lesson. Identifying their strengths and utilizing them as assets for deliberate practice is another byproduct of your increased observation. Observing the quality of their practice is equally as important as you may find the student needing a bit of assistance to scaffold their practice from boredom or frustration to appropriately challenging.
Remember my story about the handwriting and incorporate the meta-cognizance of deliberate practice by talking about this strategy with your older students. Empowering students with this knowledge can be a game-changer!
Montessori guides that insure scaffolding is happening within the students practice of a skill optimize their improvement of that skill. Practice doesn’t make perfect, deliberate practice does.
Stretch your observation skills by refreshing your knowledge then deliberately practice them in your classroom environment!
– By Tammy Oesting
Our ABCs of Learning: Montessori Edition is inspired by the work of authors Daniel L. Schwartz, Jessica Tsang and Kristen Blair, Professors of Education at Stanford University’s book The ABCs of How We Learn: 26 Scientifically Proven Approaches, How They Work, and When to Use which was reviewed on our Great Titles for Educators web page.