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The 4 R’s of deliberate practice

By Gene Kerns, EdD, Vice President and Chief Academic Officer

For a number of years, I have been fascinated by research on the science of expertise. Many of us were first introduced to this topic in Malcolm Gladwell’s bestseller, Outliers: The Story of Success. In that book, he presented multiple examples of how to establish “the 10,000-hour rule,” claiming that in nearly any field, from musicology to teaching, 10,000 hours of practice are necessary to achieve expertise (Gladwell, 2008).

Gladwell’s assertion was based on a review of research by many people, most notably Dr. K. Anders Ericsson of Florida State University. While Gladwell’s rule is somewhat accurate at a high level, a critical element is missing. Gladwell merely references practice, while virtually all others in the field place a modifier before the word. For most, it is “deliberate practice” (Ericsson and Pool, 2016; Colvin, 2008), although Coyle (2009) prefers “deep practice” and Syed (2010) prefers “purposeful practice.”

Really, Gladwell’s rule that expertise requires “10,000 hours of practice” could be improved by saying “10,000 hours of deliberate practice.” Although in reality, 10,000 hours of carving stone won’t make you Rodin, nor will that amount of time with a tennis ball and a racket make you Serena Williams. There’s also a problem with the “10,000 hour” part because depending on the field, more or less time might be required, but that’s another blog!

Ultimately, after consuming a good quantity of the research on the science of expertise, a key question we need to ask ourselves is “What differentiates the ‘deliberate practice’ done by experts from the ‘practice’ that most of us undertake?” This is a critical question for educators because Ericsson and Pool (2016) claim that deliberate practice “is the most powerful approach to improving learning that has yet been discovered.”

I conceptualize this delineation with “The Four Rs”: repetition, resistance, results, and recovery.


First, deliberate practice requires a certain number of repetitions because, as Coyle (2009) points out, when we practice things repeatedly, we physiologically alter our brains by building up a fatty substance called myelin, which acts like insulation for brain circuits. According to Coyle (2009), “myelin transforms narrow alleys (of unpracticed skills in the brain) into broad, lightning-fast super-highways” of skill and precision.


For skills to grow optimally, we need resistance. According to Ericsson, Prietula, and Cokely (2007), “When most people practice, they focus on things they already know how to do. Deliberate practice is different. It entails considerable, specific, and sustained efforts to do something you can’t do well—or even at all.” This is not unlike Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky’s (1978) concept of the “zone of proximal development” (ZPD), which he defined as “the distance between the actual developmental level…and the level of potential development…under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers” (p. 86).


Results are critical because when we undertake in deliberate practice, the intensity can be grueling. Ericsson, Krampe, and Tesch-Römer (1993) asserted that “in the absence of adequate feedback, efficient learning is impossible and improvement only minimal even for highly motivated subjects.” To be willing to do the grueling work that mastery requires, we must be able to see that we are becoming more proficient.


Finally, true deliberate practice requires intense focus, and it is so difficult that it can only be endured for a certain period. Studies across multiple domains vary, with maximum practice times typically ranging from two to four hours a day at most, with the possible exception of physical pursuits. Ericsson, Krampe, and Tesch-Römer (1993) noted that “to maximize gains from long-term practice, individuals must avoid exhaustion and limit practice to an amount from which they can recover on a daily or weekly basis.”

Looking for more insights on deliberate practice? Check out Dr. Kerns’ book, Unlocking Student Talent: The New Science of Developing Expertise.

Gene Kerns, EdD, Vice President and Chief Academic Officer
Gene Kerns, EdD, Vice President and Chief Academic Officer
Gene Kerns, EdD, is a third-generation educator with teaching experience from elementary through the university level, in addition to his K–12 administrative experience. As Vice President and Chief Academic Officer at Renaissance, Dr. Kerns advises educators in both the US and the UK about academic trends and opportunities. Previously, he served as the Supervisor of Academic Services for the Milford School District in Milford, Delaware. He has bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Longwood College in Virginia and a doctor of education degree from the University of Delaware. His first publication, Informative Assessment: When It’s Not About a Grade, focused on using routine, reflective, and rigorous informative assessments to inform and improve teaching practices and student learning.


  1. Dvawn Maza says:

    I agree with most of this, but I believe natural ability has not been discussed. My husband is one of the best guitarist I’ve ever heard and I’ve grown up with music. I’m about to take on learning how to play the bass and I know that no matter how many hours I put in…10,000 or 10,000 deliberate hours, I will never be the player he is because he has just phenomenal, raw, natural, music ability.

    • Gene Kerns, EdD, Vice President and Chief Academic Officer Gene Kerns, Ed.D., Vice President and Chief Academic Officer says:

      Great point, Dvawn! The science of expertise does acknowledge innate, natural talent. Coyle (2009) addresses this in the following: “This is not to say that every person on the planet has the potential to become an Einstein. Nor does it mean that our genes don’t matter—they do. The point, rather, is that although talent feels and looks predestined, in fact we have a good deal of control over what skills we develop and we each have more potential than we might ever presume to guess.”

      Directly asked about this during a keynote and Q&A session we hosted, Coyle noted that natural talent may well account for 10–15% of overall success. The problem is that we often think it explains 60%, 70%, or even 80%, especially when we use words and phrases like “born to” or “a natural at.”

    • Renee Graham says:

      Good point. Nature/nurture – both are important.

  2. Renee Graham says:

    Oh my stars! If only I could get parents to understand this fully!

  3. Rita Platt says:

    This reminds me of Malcom Gladwell’s book, The Outliers.

  4. Francine Canarios says:

    I look forward to learning more about this research. We have focused on ZPD in reading, but I would like to see this applied to my math program. I am currently implementing Accelerated Math and struggle with the amount of practice at the right level for each student.
    I am looking forward to this webinar.

    • Gene Kerns, EdD, Vice President and Chief Academic Officer Gene Kerns, Ed.D., Vice President and Chief Academic Officer says:

      You make an excellent point, Francine. Achieving the correct level challenge is always difficult. If we are envisioning this using Vygotsky’s ZPD, we must acknowledge that as students learn and grow, the zone is an ever-moving target. In this constant struggle, assessment data (both interim and formative) is critical.

      Though we haven’t talked about ZPD within Accelerated Math quite as much as in Accelerated Reader, the concept is still there. If you’ll notice the critical values on the Diagnostic Report (e.g. 75% or higher for practices, 80% or higher for review work), these are indicators of appropriate challenge. If students have diagnostic codes on this report of “P”, “T”, or “R” (There is a legend at the bottom of the report for this), they are overly challenged.

  5. Narda Lugo says:

    I agree with the 4 r’s & it’s meaning!

  6. Fatima Peters says:

    I cannot wait to take part in Ericsson’s webinar!!! I’m a huge fan of deliberate practice!

    • Gene Kerns, EdD, Vice President and Chief Academic Officer Gene Kerns, Ed.D., Vice President and Chief Academic Officer says:

      That’s great to hear, Fatima! We can’t wait to have you join us.

  7. Christina says:

    How do we get our parent population to fully understand this?

  8. Micah Chatterton says:

    In my experience, I absolutely agree that a student’s progress through their ZPD is best served “under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers”, which is a component of the reading formula many parents (and some teachers) don’t realize.

  9. Sarah Swanzy says:

    I agree and believe the 4 Rs!

  10. Ms. Moetell says:

    Reading with others can be a fun activity. Encouraging students to read with their classmates is one way I encourage this.

  11. Laura Quiroz says:

    The 4 R’s is right on, I completely agree .

  12. Kelly Barr says:

    This is great to share with parents.

  13. Virginia Travis says:

    How do we encourage our parents to see the importance of daily reading practice? I provide time for peer reading during the day and this is an enjoyable time for students.

    • Gene Kerns, EdD, Vice President and Chief Academic Officer Gene Kerns, Ed.D., Vice President and Chief Academic Officer says:

      Thank you, Virginia. I think we need to share the research and information with parents during open houses and back to school nights. We’ve known the relationship between reading a lot and performing well in school for decades. As far back as 1996, Renaissance published the “Patterns of Reading Practice” report ( which revealed that the average student then spent 7.1 minutes a day reading. What football team would be successful if practice ran from 3:00 until 3:07?

      According to Fogarty, Kerns, and Pete (in press) research on the science of expertise suggests that, “Although we tend to starkly delineate between the physical and the cognitive, brain development through practice holds much in common with developing muscles.” Parents understand practice comparisons intuitively and research from multiple areas continues to validate the need for practice.

      Also, a saying that we have long used that is helpful is, “For some students, Accelerated Reader is about reading well. For others, it is about being well read.” Some folks think that once student can read well, they might not need additional practice time. No. Once they can read well, the focus shifts to reading widely to gain background knowledge.

  14. Madina Olson says:

    I wish I could watch the webinar; I cannot make that time. Will there be another time scheduled?

    • Gene Kerns, EdD, Vice President and Chief Academic Officer Gene Kerns, Ed.D., Vice President and Chief Academic Officer says:

      Hi, Madina! If you register for the webinar, we’ll send you the recording afterward. That way, you can watch it on your schedule!

  15. Derek says:

    Wow! Interesting

    • Gene Kerns, EdD, Vice President and Chief Academic Officer Gene Kerns, Ed.D., Vice President and Chief Academic Officer says:

      I’m glad you found it interesting, Derek. Thank you for reading.

  16. Dalina says:

    The old saying of practice makes perfect….it has always made sense

  17. Chimere McRae says:

    This totally makes me rethink one of my favorite sayings, “Practice makes perfect!”

  18. Perez says:

    Some articles allow one to share by email. Is that possible with this article? I just see options to share via social media. If not, would you be able to offer that alternative on this and all articles. Thank you! I would love to share this with my staff.

    • Gene Kerns, EdD, Vice President and Chief Academic Officer Gene Kerns, Ed.D., Vice President and Chief Academic Officer says:

      Thank you for reading, Perez. Unfortunately, we don’t have a button to share our blog posts via email, but if you copy the URL above, you should be able to share any post with your staff.