When Practice Alone Doesn’t Make Perfect

Success through deliberate practice

Our Founder gets real about her personal accounts of failure and triumph in teaching and business.

Right after New Years, I was in a meeting with a prospective client and received some tough questions from the father. The mother and father shared concerns about their middle school daughter’s battle with anxiety. They had taken her to a psychologist, who suggested that an underlying learning disability could be the main cause of the girl’s emotional distress. As I prompted the parents to think back through their child’s educational history, they recounted signs of reading and writing difficulties beginning as early as kindergarten. After I listened to the learning challenges they described, I let them know that we could definitely help their daughter. While the mother appeared relieved to find help, the father was skeptical. “How can you make a difference when we have been trying to help our daughter practice reading and spelling along with her teachers without success for all these years? You’ve got to do something different, right?” I assured him that we would be taking a different approach, and that we had successfully helped many students other with similar stories.

This meeting left me wishing I could better articulate for parents what makes our programs so successful in comparison to what they may have already tried at home or within a school setting. Then I heard a podcast last week that put it all in clear perspective. It was a show on Freakonomics focused on the theme of achieving mastery – whether in an art, foreign language, new job, or academic task. The podcast centered around the research of psychologist, Anders Ericsson. Ericsson’s work was the backbone of what author, Malcolm Gladwell, popularized as the “10,000 hours rule” for practice in order to achieve mastery in his book, Outliers. However, this podcast highlighted Gladwell’s oversimplification of Ericsson’s research: it isn’t just the hours of practice that matter, but rather the right kind of practice that counts.  

According to Ericsson, what he calls, “deliberate practice” makes the difference between those who achieve mastery and those who just burn a lot of hours before giving up on their goals. Deliberate practice involves more than just repetition. The key is following proven-effective techniques used by previous masters to achieve the goal you seek to reach. In order to find success with deliberate practice, Ericsson finds it necessary to go beyond your comfort zone with the feedback of a skillful teacher to ensure you are continually making baby steps of progress towards your goal.

My Personal Journey to Success

Thinking about Ericsson’s mastery formula, I realized that I’ve experienced it in the greatest achievements of my life. First, I thought of my experience as a young Teach for America teacher in inner-city Los Angeles. People often comment on the “gift” I seem to have for teaching, but the truth is that when I started Teach for America, I was an awful teacher! With Teach for America, teachers receive full-time teaching jobs with temporary credentials after only a four-week teacher training summer program. While I certainly learned a lot from the late nights lesson planning and team teaching for summer school classes, I didn’t know the first thing about classroom management.

In my first classroom, the twenty first-graders in my charge took full advantage of my inexperience. Yet, by mid-year I had my classroom under control and by the end of the year, all of my students – including one who came to us midyear from Mexico speaking no English and with no prior school experience – were performing at or above grade level in reading, writing, and math. Moreover, at the start of my second year teaching, my principal asked me to lead our staff development days, so I could share my teaching expertise with the rest of the school!

So, how did I master teaching in just one year? My success came as a result of deliberate practice, as Ericsson describes it. I followed proven methods of practice with the coaching and feedback from teaching experts, who coaxed me beyond my comfort zone towards a clearly defined goal. Teach for America program helped me identify clear goals for my students’ performance and provided ongoing guidance from their most successful, experienced teachers in our same grade levels throughout the year. In addition, I enrolled in a Master’s Degree and Multiple Subject Teaching Credential program through Loyola Marymount University, where carefully structured readings, lectures, discussions, and projects steadily improved my teaching. With the support of a small private university, my professors were approachable and provided me with regular feedback to learn from my mistakes. It was an exhausting year that certainly tested my grit, but in the end, I developed the skills that ensured a smooth second year of teaching and paved the way for my successful career in education.

More recently, I’ve experienced the payoff of deliberate practice in my role as CEO for La Jolla LearningWorks. When I founded the company nearly eight years ago, I was well-seasoned in teaching and individualized education. I knew how to direct my own deliberate practice to keep my skills sharp and sought outside training and attended conferences to continually refine my teaching. Yet, as the company began to grow, my role shifted away from working with students, and I shifted into a leadership position as CEO. Since this change was gradual, I didn’t realize how ill-prepared I was until I came up against real challenges to manage finances, hire the right people, and keep those people happy in their jobs. When I finally realized the nature of my “new job,” it took awhile to figure out how to get the help I needed. I joined a business group and spent two years learning from entrepreneur coaches and other business owners, but I still wasn’t seeing the results I knew were necessary for my company to thrive long-term. I read numerous books, listened to countless podcasts, but I was still struggling to keep my ship afloat.

It wasn’t until late in 2015 that I found out about a local business coach, who was also the founder of a very successful learning center. This immediately resonated with me: I knew I needed to work with someone who had already experienced success doing what I was trying to achieve. And so, in December 2015, I engaged the business coaching support of Michelle Rose-Gilman, founder of Fusion Academy and Learning Center. Michelle helped me identify just what was going wrong in my business and identify clear goals for the next year. Then, we got to work on a gameplan to fix these problems. With weekly coaching sessions, Michelle provided invaluable direction and feedback on my efforts as I steadily chipped away at the issues. I worked late nights and weekends to complete my homework assignments from Michelle, but I was motivated and energized by the improvements I saw in my company. By the end of the year, I looked back over the goals I had set and can proudly say I had reached them all!

So when I think of my greatest achievements, it is clear that my success has not been a matter of any sort of luck or innate gifts. Rather, my rapid acceleration from a fumbling novice teacher to the leader of my school’s professional development in year two and my success in the last year as a business owner are pointed examples mastery through deliberate practice. In both cases, I stayed focused on specific goals and followed carefully articulated techniques to develop my skills with regular feedback from experts in the areas I sought to master.

Deliberate Practice in Action at La Jolla LearningWorks

These revelations bring me a whole new sense of respect for the work we do at La Jolla LearningWorks. We start with a thorough investigation into each student’s background and current challenges to identify specific, individualized goals for learning. Then, we write up a personalized learning program based on proven-effective approaches to develop the specific academic goals for the student. Next, we match the student with one of our experienced educators, who provides direction and regular feedback to ensure the student is getting the right practice. With commitment and follow-through from the student and his or her family to attend sessions regularly, we see our students make tremendous gains in relatively short periods of time.  

In many cases, the success we see in our students at LJLW comes as a stark contrast to lack of progress in previous tutoring or support from the school. One particular example that comes to mind is of a student whose father sought our services when she was in the middle of her eighth-grade year.  This student, Joelle*, had been in public school with an IEP program in place since early elementary school. Yet the school ultimately failed to give Joelle the skills she needed to read and write to succeed in middle school. With high school right around the corner, her father was desperate for help to give Joelle the skills he knew were necessary for her academic success and confidence.

When we initially assessed Joelle, her reading and spelling skills were at the first-grade level.  We knew we had our work cut out and let her father know that we needed a minimum of three hours a week during the remainder of the school year along with an intensive summer of daily instruction to bridge the gaps in Joelle’s literacy skills. Following our recommendations, Joelle worked steadily on the goals detailed in her Learning Plan with the guidance of her Educational Coach. By the end of the summer, she tested at the sixth grade level in reading and spelling.  Joelle made five years of growth in only four months!
Success like Joelle’s is not uncommon at our learning center. And now I can explain why.  As it turns out, our secret is not so mysterious after all; rather it is the exact formula for mastery through deliberate practice as Ericsson defines it.

*Student’s name has been changed to protect her privacy.

About the Author:

Megan Cohen Trezza, M.Ed., is the founder of La Jolla LearningWorks, where she helps customize educational therapy programs for students facing learning challenges. Connect with her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/LaJollaLearningWorks, or via email at megan@LJLearningWorks.com.

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