In my previous two blogs (part of a series of 4), I’ve been confident enough about my own practice to share reflections on planning learning and engaging students without much agonising over it. I knew that week 3’s blog on ‘practice’ would be the most challenging because I feel it’s the place where so much more learning lies for me. It’s one of those aspects of teaching where the more I read, the less I feel I know and the more I want to find out. You’ll find that the following blog contains references to things that have provoked thought and reflection for me with regards to practice (don’t expect all the answers!) and I’d love your comments below or on Twitter @hannahtyreman.
My focus on ‘practice’ and what made it effective all began with Malcolm Gladwell’s assertion in his book, ‘Outliers‘, that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert in something. Great, we all love a target to aim towards but what do those 10,000 hours look like and how do we get the commitment from our students for this Olympian level of dedication? How about Angela Duckworth and grit? What answers might her explorations of what it takes to stick at something offer us? What about having confidence in our abilities like Will Smith; possessing the unwavering belief that we are the best? Would this be enough?
Effort and dedication seem to get some people pretty far but there are other significant components to consider. An olympian doesn’t become such without something beyond hard work. They usually have a coach or several by their side; all working to consider the range of factors contributing to their possible success.
One of the key educators we’ve referenced for the ‘Cornerstones’ at The Sheffield College is Doug Lemov and there is nowhere his work is more significant than with regards to ‘practice’-
“We are fond of saying “practice makes perfect,” and indeed the title of this book plays on the connection between practice and perfection. But it is more accurate to say that practice makes permanent.” (Lemov, D, 2012)
Within Further Education, practice is the basis of what our students do. They practise their skills and apply their knowledge in a variety of ways from day one with us. Much of this takes place in workshop spaces or even the workplace (as well as in classroom settings). By the time they reach us though, many of the things they’ve practised previously have become somewhat permanent. Much of our job involves undoing a great deal of what they think they’ve mastered (especially where English and maths is concerned); often getting students to approach problems in new ways and with a fresh mindset.
So how do we ensure that students don’t take a demonstration or an explanation and move to practise it for themselves incorrectly; learning bad habits instead? Feedback, our fourth cornerstone, certainly plays a pivotal role. It seems important that students receive a great deal of feedback, along with repeated demonstrations and modelling in the early stages of their learning before they enter more free and independent practice.
Here’s an introduction to ‘practice’ from Doug Lemov-
As Doug shares here, the practice that is often most valuable takes place when we’ve mastered something.
Lessons from Formula 1
As a fan of Formula 1, I have long since been fascinated by the teamwork and precision required for a swift tyre change. In recent years, a good tyre change can make all the difference between winning or losing a race.
You can watch one of the fastest pit stops here-
This kind of thing doesn’t happen by fluke. It has taken the team a great deal of practice to get to the point of achieving a pit stop in 1.9 seconds. You can read more about the art of a perfect pit stop here. The hours of practice leading up to a race, the summative assessment if you like, are designed to lead to the process becoming instinctive for all parties- and if it’s instinctive then it’s more likely to be smooth, fast and problem free.
‘Managing that crew is a delicate business. Dropping a pit stop in the low two-second window is the result of many hours’ practice at the circuit and in the factory – but not too many hours.
“You can wear the guys out and – worse – lose their enthusiasm if you don’t consider it carefully,” says Wheatley. “There has to be a balance, and part of that means not scheduling so much practice that people start to lose motivation. We wouldn’t, for example, practice in the factory the first day back after a race – because everyone will be tired. We also won’t practice the standard stop all the time. We’ll break that up by practicing the ‘set-piece’ stops – punctures, nose cone changes and so on.”
One aspect of my students’ practice in GCSE English that I’ve considered recently is how often I ask that they focus on the whole piece from start to finish where all of the components will be assessed. How much better could it be instead if I broke down a whole assessment into single components where they can hone certain skills so they can move on once proficient in that area of their work?
Busy, Busy Busy
A sample chapter from Doug Lemov shares how students being ‘busy’ does not necessarily mean that learning is taking place
‘Let’s begin by looking at a youth sports practice. It is a brisk evening and a group of nine-year-old soccer players are bustling about on a patch of turf. The drill they’re doing requires them to dribble the ball through a set of cones, then pass the ball underneath a bench as they run to one side of it, meeting the ball on the other side. Once they do this they move into a square of cones where they tap the ball back and forth between both feet quickly ten times. Next they race off to a new set of cones where they tap the top of the ball with alternating feet. The sequence ends with their dribbling in for a shot on goal. At first glance, the drill seems first-rate. It offers constant activity and continuous variation plus the opportunity to practice a myriad of skills. Busy bees! A closer look, however, reveals that what these players are doing may not lead to much improvement. It’s not enough to just be busy.’ (Lemov, D, 2012)
You can read this extract and more in this sample chapter available online here.
These students are going through the motions but what are they gaining as a result of this activity? Do they know what skills they’re practising? How their activity might link to the requirements of a football match? Do they know the small changes they could make that might have a big impact on how successful they are? Peer critique and feedback from the teacher could have changed this, as might more focus on one particular activity repeated with feedback stops in between as well as coaching during.
This term is one you’re likely to have come across and it entered the mainstream after Malcolm Gladwell’s work rose to prominence. His book was written long after the paper was written by Anders Ericsson about deliberate practice and expertise. You can read the paper here. Like most theories, his assertions have been contested and his theory almost certainly won’t apply to all ‘experts’ in their respective fields but how might it help teachers?
The theory of deliberate practice, in basic terms, is that expert performers are not just so because of innate talent- their difference from ‘normal adults’ is in fact that they have dedicated their lives to making a deliberate effort to improve their performance; practising things of increasing difficulty and engaging in feedback along the way.
Translated into sport, one article cites how a golfer used deliberate practice to improve his game-
‘Hogan methodically broke the game of golf down into chunks and figured out how he could master each section. For example, he was one of the first golfers to assign specific yardages to each golf club. Then, he studied each course carefully and used trees and sand bunkers as reference points to inform him about the distance of each shot.’
Read more here- http://jamesclear.com/beginners-guide-deliberate-practice
Practice for Teachers
Whilst deliberate practice clearly offers a great deal to our reflections on how students improve, the theory can also be of help for teachers and their own development. How often do you engage with CPD that focuses on one aspect of your practice for a period of time? Everything you read, observe, watch, discuss and practise relates to that chosen aspect? How often do you then receive ongoing feedback on that particular aspect of your practice? If you’d like to engage in this kind of approach then watch this space as we’d like to explore more of this kind of CPD in the coming months at The Sheffield College. You could begin to try it for yourself using colleagues, videos of your practice and these suggestions of 10 techniques to practise from Tom Sherrington-