In this third post, my “tri-blog-a-thon”, connecting education to the recently completed London Summer Olympics 2012, I ask you to recognize the significance of practice.
The 10,004 athletes from 204 National Olympic Committees (NOCs) who participated in the 2012 London Summer Olympics practiced for their athletic contests. There were incalculable hours of practice that contributed to each athlete qualifying for a specific event. Similarly, this fall there will be over 37.9 million primary grade and 26.1 million secondary school children* who will practice the skills taught in our nation’s schools. These students will have a mandated minimum of 180 days or 64,800 minutes of practice in a school year.
Practice by athletes makes participation in the Olympics possible. Practice makes education for our schoolchildren possible.
Of course, there is always a great deal of attention placed on the winner(s) of each Olympic event. Gold, silver, and bronze medals distinguish the best athletes on a given day in a given event. Similarly, our nation is obsessed with test scores in education, the final event in measuring specific skills on a given day. However, there is often too little attention paid to the practice that is necessary to achieve high grades on these tests of skills. All skills, athletic and intellectual, can only be achieved through practice.
In preparing for back to school, teachers, parents, and students must recognize the importance of practice in education. Practice is to do or perform (something) repeatedly in order to acquire or polish a skill. Practice is to work at a profession; as in the exercise of an occupation. Practice is what athletes and students have in common.
Unfortunately, practice is often hard work. Practice requires attention. Practice means focus. Practice is demanding. And practice can be boring if there is no reason for the practice.
When my students complain about the amount or variety of reading they may have to do, I point out that they are engaged in a practice. Like a runner, they cannot win a race without running wind sprints or running longer more challenging race courses. They are practicing to be better readers.
Similarly, when they complain about the amount or variety of writing I assign, I point out that composing in various forms such as letters, essays, narratives, research papers or even texting is a practice. They will need to communicate in the future in numerous formats, handwritten and digital. They are practicing to be good communicators.
Student practice a wide variety of skills in different disciplines every day at every grade level. There are some skills that come easily to students with little practice; there are other skills that require more practice. The kind of practice a student engages in matters as well; repetition is not the only kind of practice to improve skills. There must be variations in the kinds of practice for a student to become good at a skill.
In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell wrote extensively about a “10,000 hour rule” where the key to success in any field is the practice of a specific task for a total of around 10,000 hours. Gladwell’s book called attention to the work of researcher Anders Ericsson. In TIME Magazine’s article “The Science of Experience” by John Cloud, Ericsson had become the world’s leading expert on experts, ” a term he distinguishes from ‘expert performers’ — those individuals, possessing both experience and superior skill, who tend to win Nobel Prizes or international chess competitions or Olympic medals.” But more important than routine repetition, varying the kind of practice had the most significant impact on skill improvement.
Cloud detailed how Ericsson found, “Experts tend to be good at their particular talent, but when something unpredictable happens — something that changes the rules of the game they usually play — they’re little better than the rest of us.” Changing practice to incorporate more complex tasks improved performance:
“Ericsson’s primary finding is that rather than mere experience or even raw talent, it is dedicated, slogging, generally solitary exertion — repeatedly practicing the most difficult physical tasks for an athlete, repeatedly performing new and highly intricate computations for a mathematician — that leads to first-rate performance. And it should never get easier; if it does, you are coasting, not improving. Ericsson calls this exertion ‘deliberate practice,’ by which he means the kind of practice we hate, the kind that leads to failure and hair-pulling and fist-pounding.”
This kind of deliberate practice can build confidence. Other desirable qualities associated with deliberate practice are motivation, self-discipline, and commitment, all qualities we want to imbue in our students.
So, here is a goal for the new school year. Let the school year be filled with “deliberate” practice for every student at every grade level. Let the practice be frustrating. Let the practice be difficult. Let the practice be challenging. Let the practice lead to failure, so that the practice leads to success. “Let there be practice” should be the mantra for all stakeholders in our nation’s education system in this coming school year.
Now let the practice begin!
*2006-07 statistics from US Census