Coined by psychologist Anders Ericsson in the early 1990s, deliberate practice isn’t merely clocking in a certain amount of hours of practice. After all, you can tell a kid to practice playing the piano for three hours every day and he may still hit a plateau with his performance if there’s no desire to improve (aka half-assing it!).
Deliberate practice, on the other hand, is practice designed to improve specific aspects of the skills a person is trying to master. In this situation, the same three hours can be used to fine tune a skill, receive feedback, correct mistakes—all in the hopes of improving performance and striving for excellence.
How does this apply to my three-year-old working on his tracing?
First, a disclaimer: when it comes to education and school, I’m more concerned that my son develops a love for knowledge, so I approach school work with eagerness and fun and do my best not to paint school and learning as obligations (“You don’t have to go to school today”) but rather something he would enjoy on his own (“Tomorrow isn’t a school day”).
That said, I still believe in deliberate practice and helping him along with his class work. How?
1. No sugar-coating or over-praising
First, I try not to sugar coat or over-praise him for every little thing he does. If what he did seems sub par to what I know he can accomplish, I won’t have him think that that’s sufficient. Similarly, I keep praise to a minimum and instead offer a narrative of what he just did (“You traced the letter ‘D’”). And when what he does actually warrants praise, I focus on the effort and keep the praise descriptive rather than evaluative (e.g. “Look at how you wrote the number 2!” versus “You’re so good at writing the number 2!”).
2. Provide feedback
One of the best ways to instill deliberate practice is to offer feedback. If my son is to learn how to write well, he’s better off being told what to improve or correct than if I were to simply let him scrawl all day long. I even like how he’ll take a look at his work and point out which ones weren’t done too well and which ones were better.
Free play is important, but giving feedback is required if someone wants to improve their skill with deliberate practice. It’s like me learning how to knit—if I’m a little bit interested in it, sure I could just hang out with friends and take a class or two for fun. But if I really wanted to be a serious knitter, I’d need more than just free play.
3. Offer instruction
Similarly, providing instruction helps him learn the technicalities of what he’s trying to learn. With writing, we show him how to hold a pen (although he’s stubborn about this part), that he has more control if his hand is located towards the tip, or that he needs to place the pen right above the dotted lines to trace.
4. Let kids struggle
I’m a fan of letting kids struggle. It’s truly one of the best ways for them to learn how to get out of their comfort zones, which is the only way to really master any skill. By being challenged, kids are able to make leaps and bounds in ways they couldn’t if they just played the same piano piece they’ve been comfortable with over and over. The amazing thing with deliberate practice is that despite the discomfort of learning something new, most people will actually find the challenge enjoyable, especially once a skill has been mastered.
5. Embrace mistakes
Mistakes show us what does and doesn’t work, offers a glimpse of how far we’ve come along, and, let’s face it, are unavoidable in life. Rather than hiding from shame, I’d rather my kiddo see mistakes as normal and something that will lead him to where he wants to be. If he happens to make mistakes, we point it out matter-of-factly if need be and either show him or ask him how he can improve.
Doing your best
The more I practice with my kiddo, the more I find myself saying the same things over and over. Namely, that the more you practice, the better you get. I want him to embrace practice for what he can accomplish in that time.
But practice itself isn’t always enough, especially if he’s trying to improve. And in order for him to use the time wisely, I also encourage him to try to make the next one better than what he has done. With the goal of improving, hopefully he’ll learn that part of the joy of learning a skill is constantly pushing yourself to master more and more of it through deliberate practice.
What are some ways you encourage deliberate practice and doing your best with your kids?