Deliberate Practice

The Learning For Memory project has been influenced by the idea of deliberate practice, as explained in Daisy Christodoulou’s book ‘Making good progress?: The future of Assessment for Learning‘, as well as by the application of deliberate practice expounded in ‘The Writing Revolution: A Guide to Advancing Thinking Through Writing in All Subjects and Grades‘ by Judith C. Hochman and Natalie Wexler.

Deliberate practice vs generic skills

According to Christodoulou, there are broadly two approaches to teaching skills: teaching them directly (the generic-skill method) and teaching them indirectly (the deliberate-practice method). The generic-skill approach involves teaching the desired skill directly, with the activities mirroring the desired end product. So for example, if we wanted to teach students how to write a history GCSE essay, then the activity would be to write such an essay.

The deliberate-practice approach, on the other hand, does not involve practising a skill in its final form. Instead, the skill is broken down into different component parts and these are practised until mastery is reached. Only then, does the student attempt the actual intended skill to be learned, such as the GCSE essay mentioned above.

The main problem with the generic-skills approach is that skills are not generic, they are specific. Thus it is nigh on impossible to teach discrete skills such as problem-solving or critical thinking. You cannot get better at problem-solving simply by practising solving problems. Christodoulou suggests that experts in all fields

‘depend on rich and detailed structures of knowledge stored in their long term memory. These structures – often called schema or mental models – are what allow the expert to encounter new problems and solve them with such ease.’

In other words, when experts are problem solving, they are not exercising some generic problem solving muscles. What they are actually doing is using a store of specific mental models in their long term memory to help solve the new problem. Thus, if we want our students to get better at something, we need them to acquire these mental models in their long-term memory, and the best way to do this is through deliberate practice.

Applying the deliberate-practice method to teaching history

I have thought long and hard about how we would go about breaking up the skills needed to write a good history essay. Where would we start? Of course, to write a good essay, you need to be able to make strong arguments and to show both your knowledge of the period and understanding of the question. So one of the starting points is the actual knowledge of the period we are discussing. My main approach in building up this knowledge has been the use of narrative. In this, I am not alone. The most recent issue of Teaching History (June 2018) has an article by Alex Ford and Richard Kennett which also suggests using narrative to make knowledge more memorable.

‘One way teachers can make knowledge memorable is by giving greater emphasis to narratives in our classrooms… Stories are easier for our brains to process and to remember and they allow us to attach additional information to them. In short, the story can act as a skeleton schema to help with memorisation.’

Through the medium of telling a story, we can immerse our students in the past and help them build a picture of the characters and events we are describing. One other aspect of making the knowledge memorable is to use approaches suggested by cognitive psychology for effective learning. The three approaches that I have found most useful in the context of history are:

  • retrieval practice
  • interleaving, and
  • dual coding.

Retrieval practice

Retrieval practice involves regular low stakes quizzing, as the more often we try to retrieve knowledge from our memory, the more memorable it becomes. At the end of each lesson sequence in the Learning For Memory booklets, I include a set of 3 recap questions. The first question usually recaps on a topic discussed in the previous lesson, and the other two questions delve further back. Knowledge organisers and multiple choice questions can also be used for quizzing, for example as a starter ‘do now’ type activity. I will be adding these as free downloadable resources in due course.


Interleaving was initially problematic, for history is very reliant on chronology. However, after much deliberation, I was able to find opportunities for harnessing this approach. In booklet 3 of ‘The Middle Ages’, I interleaved the three overlapping stories of Harold Hardrada, Harold Godwinson and William of Normandy. The battle of Stamford Bridge gets covered twice: once during Hardrada’s story and then during Harold Godwinson’s narrative. The same applies for the battle of Hastings, which gets covered twice, from each protagonist’s perspective; each time a new level of detail is added.

I was also able to weave in particular concepts on numerous occasions, for example the concept of chivalry. We first encounter chivalry in booklet 5, when discussing the effects of the Norman Conquest on English society. Subsequently, we encounter chivalry again, this time in booklet 7, which tells the story of the ‘Anarchy’. When King Stephen is captured by Matilda’s forces at the battle of Lincoln, he is imprisoned because the code of chivalry prohibits the murder of opponents who have been captured, causing a bit of a conundrum for Matilda. Having seen chivalry in this context, students are then better placed to understand the haemorrhage of support for John after he captured Arthur and had him murdered (discussed in booklet 10).

Dual coding

Dual coding is basically a way to overcome constraints of working memory by displaying the information as a mixture of graphics and text. The Learning For Memory booklets contain a wealth of diagrams to summarise the information in a more digestible way. For example, there is frequent use of simple flow charts, summarising the main events just studied. This is one that was used to summarise the events following the sinking of the White Ship and Henry I’s naming of Matilda as his heir.

Here is another type of diagram used, this time to summarise how King William I profitted from the feudal system when a tenant-in-chief died.

Deliberate practice for writing

Of course, knowledge of the historical period is not enough. Students need to be able to formulate arguments and write effectively. Here, I was much inspired by The Writing Revolution, which argues that students need to be taught explicitly how to write, starting at the sentence level. Hochman and Wexler explain the main problem:

“To be effective, writing instruction should start in elementary [primary] school. But when students do get a chance to write in elementary school, they’re often encouraged to write at length too soon, sometimes at a furious pace. They don’t learn how to construct interesting and grammatically correct sentences first, and they aren’t encouraged to plan or outline before they write… When students get to middle school or high school, it’s assumed that they’ve already learned the basics of writing. As many secondary teachers know, that assumption has little to do with reality. But rather than beginning with teaching the fundamental skills their students lack – by, say, guiding students through the process of writing well-crafted sentences – teachers feel pressured to have their students meet grade-level expectations and produce multi-paragraph essays.”

I have been as guilty of doing this as anyone. In fact, when re-reading my first draft of ‘The Middle Ages’, I had to prune back several essay questions. Instead, I put more focus on completing sentence stems using the conjunctions because, but and so, as recommended by Hochman and Wexler. For example, in booklet 5, students are asked to complete the sentence stem ‘William faced many rebellions against him after becoming king of England,‘. This task is more difficult than it looks, and might need careful scaffolding and modelling by the class teacher. Possible sentences could be as follows:

William faced many rebellions against him after becoming king of England, because lots of people refused to accept him as their ruler.

William faced many rebellions against him after becoming king of England, but he was able to put them down easily with his military machine.

William faced many rebellions against him after becoming king of England, so he had to march his army from one part of the country to another in order to stamp his authority.

Then, every couple of sequence of lessons, I up the challenge by getting the students to write a paragraph, scaffolding the process by giving them a sentence starter. For example, in booklet 6, which discusses the consequences of the First Crusade, I start off with a sentence completion exercise, followed by a paragraph writing activity.

One other approach, which was nabbed from Robert Peal’s blog ‘The Art of the Paragraph‘, is to present students with a list of key terms and words (including Tier 2 words) to be included in the paragraph. For example, in booklet 8, students are asked to write two paragraphs, discussing the personal and principled aspects of the dispute between Henry II and Thomas Becket.

Only after having practised sentences and individual paragraphs, do we then go on to writing essays, the hope being that by then, students will have developed the requisite skills to practise that end-skill.


2 thoughts on “Deliberate Practice”

  1. This is an excellent article. One correction: the title is The Writing Revolution, not The Teaching Revolution. But to be honest, I think the latter title is better. It’s about much more than writing.

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