I did an observation of someone's else's lesson today and it got me thinking about "practice". We often hear the phrase "Practice Makes Perfect". But it doesn't necessarily ... Practice makes Permanent and is only Perfect if it is Perfect Practice: Perfect Practice Makes Perfect (and permanent)!. So what am I trying to say? When we are learning we need to know the right thing to do and then we need to practice that so that we remember how to do it when the time comes. If we don't learn it correctly but it is near enough and that is what we practice then we will reproduce the near enough result, but it won't get any better than that. That is why we need to reflect on our own practice (teaching practice now) ... we plan and then do. If we don't review and adjust we could end up doing the same "do" again making that more permanent but still possibly flawed. So we review, make changes and do again with differences until we are happy and then we can practice that perfect session time and time. Life is of course not that simple and nothing is ever the same again ... different learners with different needs, different day etc.  Perhaps that is a good thing as it gives use variation and surely that helps our practice as well to adapt.

In maths or sport where we are practising one element then making sure what we practice is right is important if we are going to practice repeatedly. As a teacher we need to make sure a student has got it before we ask for repeated practice otherwise later when that student recalls that element they will recall the one they practised. How many times have you pressed the wrong key on a keyboard when typing or misspelt the same word repeatedly. Perhaps in a earlier life you we not corrected early enough and so revert back to old ways. (This leads onto the theory of memory ... but not today!). We get into bad habits!

Practice can be done in a number of ways:

Block Practice or Constant Practice: repeated practice of exactly the same thing in blocks of 10 say, with no change to any of the variables
Bilateral Practice: repeating the activity on both sides - perhaps throwing with alternate hands or paddling on both sides. Most sports are bilateral. Does this apply to academic subjects?
Varied Practice: practising the same skill in different ways by varying elements of the practice. This is used lots for all kinds of teaching. In maths we can set different problems to solve using the same technique or using different games to practice it.
Random Practice: practising different skills one after the other to mix it up a bit. Maybe the skills are not related at all.
Ref: McMorris & Hale (2006; 97) devote a whole chapter to practice and explain that 

"Practice is essential if learning is to take place. To cognitivists, practice follows instruction. It is the key factor in the immediate and autonomous stages of Fitts and Posner, while Anderson would see it as being when we move from declarative knowledge (knowing what to do) to procedural knowledge (developing the ability to perform the task). To the dynamical systems theorists, practice is learning."

There is some evidence that these types of practice have different effects depending on the level of the learner in the first place and also that random practice can help develop longer lasting skills of better quality in the long term. Generally these definitions are applied to motor-skills, but I believe they are relevant to intellectual skills as well such as maths and English. By including varied practice of skills within sessions, we keep the interest of our students by offering different mini-sessions, we make sure we are covering all our learning types as well but offering varied practice as each mini-session can be aimed at different learners possibly. But do we include Random Practice? I wonder whether by doing a bit of this and a bit of that (maybe not obviously related) and then something else ... it may be confusing to begin with, but perhaps in the long term it will all come together. and could be repeated on another occasion. I am not sure how easy this would be to include in a lesson, but I do think it would be interesting to try - perhaps by introducing a new skill that lesson, but going back to old ones randomly and then coming back to the new one again?

In the sessions we run we often bring in things to a session which we know we will refer to again in another session. It is not necessarily one of that session main outcomes, but a by-product perhaps. In a sense it may be a bit random, and unlikely to sink in then. But when that is referred back to on another session where it is the main outcome, you know as a teacher that they already have some experience of that particular thing. For example: in teaching canoe coaching we teach VAK. In lesson 1 when we are teaching a safety brief we mention "show, tell, do" in the capsize drill. We have used non-technical words which indicate a need to show a move, tell or explain the move in words and then get people to do the move. In the next session we work on a teaching style which incorporates VAK: that of IDEAS (Intro, Demo, Explanation, Activity & Summary) and we are able to refer back to the "show-tell-do" activity of the previous session. This makes the learning steps to a complex teaching framework of IDEAS understandable. We are also re-enforcing the concept of IDEAS within our own teaching of the entire course, as we have an intro to the course and lessons, a physical demonstration of the kind of session we expect the students to be able to deliver by the end of the course, we explain how the theory works and the framework etc and then we ask the students to do their own (practice more than once) and then summarise. This is a good basic framework for any lesson or even series of lessons.

Caren Taylor
9/12/2012 07:54:20 pm

Hi Janet, Great post. Good blend of theory, practice, reflection and acknowledging the important journey of change.

I'm sure you know this but i'm gonna say it anyway....Don't forget that 'perfect' is not necessarily best. Your students need you to be 'good enough' - lots of psychological theory out there on this. They need to believe they can excel beyond even your ability so they can learn to fly wherever life will take them.

If you strive to improve with the objective of being perfect, number one- you will consider yourself a failure because it is not possible. number two any lesson you plan may be perfect for some but not for all - so you will still fail. Number three, your desire to deliver perfect sessions will reduce your confidence not build it, whereas a achievable goal of 'good enough' will continually build your confidence. Finally number four - striving produces dull teachers because they are so tired they lose what is most important, passion for life.

You have passion and drive, balance the two. Being a great teacher requires you to have a great life, because then you will be an inspiration to others and a joy to listen to. Teaching is more about who you are rather than what you teach.


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