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In this post Skills and Drills, I explore the idea that, in order to play ‘the match’ – an analogy for a complex area of learning – students need to balance learning component skills and engaging in match=play, putting the skills to use in context. The essence of this is the idea of practice. Increasingly I feel that teachers should devote more time and energy to this and also make the need for practice a much more explicit feature of their mental model for how learning happens.
In Barak Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction, as I discuss in detail in this post, staging phases of practice is a key element in what constitutes effective instruction. More successful teachers ensure students get plenty of practice; they guide practice closely at the novice stage to ensure students build confidence and don’t form misconceptions, and then they strategically withdraw so that students engage in independent practice, learning to think for themselves, self-regulate and so on. The skill of moving from guided to independent practice is an important area of teacher-wisdom that we all need to develop.
I think there are lots of things students do across the curriculum that are helpfully viewed through a lens of practice. Practice is essentially the process of repeating an activity (mental or physical) multiple times, introducing slight refinements and variations, receiving feedback as needed, until the person can do it more effectively, more fluently or more automatically: better! Sometimes students are involved in extended tasks that require multiple sub-skills to be used – but they’re not really getting enough practice in any of the sub-skills leaving them feeling insecure at every step. The trick is to break things down into practicable stages and give time to repeating them enough.
Let’s look at some examples:
Skills Practice – There are countless practical skills that can be improved through practice including hand-writing, drawing, making-skills in technology, handling measuring equipment in science, most of PE. Skill sequences need to be broken down into practisable parts – like a set of steps in a dance – so that students can develop fluency in one part, then two, then adding more – not by trying to practise something too complex all at once.
Performance Practice – This could include making a speech, giving a presentation, performing music, a group drama performance. The idea of rehearsal is powerful here – starting very informal and low stakes, trying things out – but then gearing up to adding more polish through practice until there is polish and finesse.
Maths Practice – There are lots of maths skills like times tables, number bonds, doubling and halving, forming sequences, work-outs with routine procedures (long division, column addition, multiplying out brackets) that support fluency if students are asked to repeatedly practise, once they understand the concept. Knowing how to form number bonds to 100 is one thing; doing it super-fluently takes practice.
Retrieval Practice – I think it is helpful to reconstitute recall of any form of procedural or declarative knowledge as ‘practice’. If you talk about ‘practising remembering’ it can apply to all the content of most subject specification – the facts, the equations, the quotes, the names, events, the ideas. As is covered extensively in the cognitive science literature, retrieval practice that is spaced over time, where concepts within a domain are interleaved and where students learn to consciously elaborate and make connections, support longer term recall. It’s still all about practice. Adam Boxer and Rosalind Walker, for example, use the phrase Shed Loads of Practice (SLOP) to describe this approach in science, identifying processes and areas of knowledge that lend themselves well to it, linking the practice with formative feedback.
Word Practice: If we don’t practise engaging with words in different ways, we don’t really learn them. The more we read, say, spell and write words in a sentence, the more fluent we become using them. You can’t expect a child to use a word spontaneously or ‘authentically’ until they’ve had a good deal of practice. I explore this in more depth in this post: Building Word Confidence: Everyone read, say, understand, use, practise.
Writing Practice: If we want children to use some fronted adverbials in their writing with some fluency, they need to practise first. All of a sudden….. there was big explosion. All of a sudden… he burst into tears. All of a sudden…the sky turned black. Practising using phrases in writing leads to fluency. This applies to more complex essays. If a student can use some structures fluently through practice, they are better prepared to apply them: In Case A we see X whereas in Case B we see Y. Throughout the poem, the author….. My son used to love the opener: There was a grey monotonous sky… which sets the tone nicely for many a great yarn! He practised it; it gave him confidence.
Speaking Practice: This is at the heart of learning to use vocabulary in any subject but it’s at the core of great MFL teaching. My son’s prep for his GCSE oral in French involved walking around the house saying things like ‘Où que j’aille, quoi que je fasse’ (wherever I go, whatever I do) . This involves le subjonctif and he had it nailed; great accent too. He practised saying multiple phrases, blending retrieval practice with speaking practice until he felt confident he could use them in multiple scenarios. That all started in lessons and he took the strategies home to practise even more.
Explanation Practice: I think it is possible to improve how you explain things by practising giving the explanations. For example, explaining how a loud-speaker works involves several steps. It pays off to practise the explanation, perhaps with a partner who has a model answer to hand – then addressing the weaker parts, or adding missing parts and then trying again. It’s a form of mental rehearsal – getting the narrative straight: this happens, then this, then this, then this. It’s a sequence of ideas that strengthen with practice. It can start the basic level with in-class questioning and the ‘say it again better’ technique.
Problem Solving Practice: My final example is with practising solving certain problem types. There is a lot of superb work on this in maths – for example via Craig Barton’s ‘same surface, different deep structure (SSDD) website. Through worked examples and strategic use of scaffolding that is later withdrawn, students can get better at problem solving through practice. Of course, fluency comes from doing something you can already do with more confidence and automaticity – so problem-solving practice needs to be pitched well. It’s different to a deep-end challenge approach which can come later once confidence is there at a more basic level.
So – don’t think about drills, repetition, rote-learning, regurgitating facts, parroting knowledge etc etc – all those tedious pejoratives. Think about practice. Practice. Practise. Practising. It’s at the heart of learning and needs to be celebrated.