Grit, flow and deliberate practice: 10 000 hideous hours!

In my last post, I introduced (or re-capped) Duckworth’s ideas on ‘grit’ – that may indicate the perseverance and passion for completing a project.


Let’s just briefly define the concepts from the title in a little more detail:

GRIT – the combination of passion and perseverance that means a person will stick with something and see it through.

FLOW -Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept that high-class, expert, performers can experience an almost effortless state (‘flow’) when performing at a complex level.

DELIBERATE PRACTICE – the time spent in coaching, working or training just above your current skill level – exhausting, tireless, emphasis on mistakes, feedback and a relentless drive to improve.

10 000 HOURS – an averaged measure of the hours of DELIBERATE PRACTICE required to achieve expert status.

If we want any student (in any walk of life) to achieve well, we know that we need them to practise. That’s why they have lessons – we are the ‘coach’ – and we design lessons that are pitched just beyond their current skill-level, and support them to succeed. Easy. And they need to have 10 000 hours of those, with intricate, guided, focus on their mistakes to ensure they are able to move on and progress.

As a consequence, in the current primary-secondary model, where a student will be in class for about 5 hours a day, for 11 years, they may just about make it to where we need them to be.

Except, of course, they won’t. Those 5 hours are divided in to many different subjects and studies and approaches. With the best will in the world, those 10 000 hours are frequently unfocused, lacking the individual tailoring, discipline, feedback and focus required to count as deliberate practice.

Inevitably, therefore, deliberate practice, for a host of reasons, will be limited to a portion of the school day – and understandably so. However, to complicate matters further, this deliberate practice is also unremittingly tiring – requiring complete focus and concentration. Even the most drilled and coached athletes and artists in the world only manage about three or four hours of deliberate practice in a day. The rest of the time , to use the words of elite runners is ‘garbage miles’:  there is little or no progress made, just ‘going through the motions’. (Is this beginning to sound like students you know?)

Secondly, the pleasant and rewarding state of ‘flow’, where high-performance is exhibited effortlessly – is just the outcome of deliberate practice. These will be those students who are no trouble, but whilst they enjoy the lessons, and may make some slow progress through their own reflections on their work, can be a wasted opportunity for them in the classroom.

And, finally, the grit required to apply oneself unremittingly to the pressures and disciplines of deliberate practice needs perseverance and an appreciation of how the practice applies to your own personal passions. As a teacher, I can barely understand how a co-ordinating connective fits to my life goals, let alone those of an eleven year old…

So, the possible identified pitfalls:

  1. Not all curriculum time can be deliberate practice (at most, the time spent in your classroom, in your subject).
  2. Deliberate practice is exhausting, so no student will be able to focus for that period of time (i.e., 5 hours in every day).
  3. Flow is a deceptive state – suggesting learning, but it may well be that the student is simply a high-performer and is not being challenged with deliberate practice.
  4. Grit relies on passion and interest – which many pupils will not have developed as they won’t value the lessons intrinsically.

It all seems bleak, doesn’t it? This model even removes the higher-achievers from the ‘successful teaching’ equation as they may well just be coasting along, getting in their ‘garbage miles’ – just wasting time.

If we’re practical, though, we can apply some deliberate theory to overcome these problems.

  1. Prioritise certain learning (not subjects). If students are to be able to access the wonders of the world they will need, at least, competent literacy, numeracy and communication skills. So these skills should be a focus every time a calculation or written, or spoken work takes place – even note-taking. Identify errors and correct them. Across every classroom in every subject. End of.
  2. With an increased focus on (1), there will be less lesson time for all subjects as time will be ‘sucked out’ for numeracy and communication. The amount of deliberate practice, however, will have increased.
  3. In lessons, as less will be taught, an increased competence will be needed to compensate. So a more frequent use of low-stakes testing for recall and application should be applied. This is still purposeful, but not as tiring as deliberate practice. As learning is embedded, students will find this easier and easier, achieving ‘flow’. So, then, extend the complexity and expectation. You’d be surprised how time-consuming these can be but, of course, in any content-heavy curriculum, they are vital or you lose more time re-teaching at the end of the course.
  4. A more holistic approach to the student’s needs. A meta-knowledge of how student’s learn – the importance of experimenting with a range of interests to find their own personal passion. To truly acknowledge (rather than give lip-service to) the fact that a student’s life and interests will extend far beyond the exams or whatever they have at the end of their time with us. This should extend to working with parents, as well as students.
  5. A couple of caveats. Firstly, available time for study of specific subject content would be reduced. It seems counter-intuitive to do this but, actually, the increasing mastery of the content and expectations within subjects would improve student performance and access over time. Secondly, the obsession with individual school’s and department’s results would have to be fought against (it’s all too easy to say, ‘literacy’s not my job’ or ‘they’re taking my time’). These suggestions place the learner at the heart of the equation, as they should be – and anyone who argues against that is in education for the wrong reasons. Thirdly, expert-practitioners across a range of fields identify experimentation of experience as a vital part of their development of passion – to reduce those opportunities by imposing a three-year-exam course in Secondary to boost student results goes against this necessary diversity. Again, it prioritises the school’s needs over those of the learner and, frankly, those who favour this approach should refer to my earlier comment.

As ever, comments appreciated!


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