Have you seen that commercial that says, “What if you could prevent cancer by eating just one piece of broccoli? What if you could lose weight by doing one sit up?”? In the education world, we could substitute, “What if you could be a good writer by writing just one essay? What if you could conquer calculus by completing just one problem?” Wishful thinking? I think you know the answer to that question.
What has this got to do with learning? Learning involves meaningful practice. The word “practice”, however, often carries with it a somewhat dour connotation of tedium. It brings back memories of hours spent laboring over worksheets or stretching fingers over piano keys often to very little success. Part of the problem is that practice is frequently confused with rote repetition. Practice does not necessarily mean rote repetition but rather regular, purpose-driven use, as the definition states practice involves application of an idea.
The Elements of Practice
But “practice” isn’t as simple as it sounds! Applying ideas, especially those we do not quite understand can be highly frustrating. There are a number of elements which contribute to successful practice. Practice must involve focused concentration. Half-hearted practice rarely if ever produces the desired results. Practice requires persistence. One could hardly imagine achieving the level of a prodigy after only one or two lessons. In order to be focused, persistent, and effective, practice must involve some element of passion, some desire to learn. And finally practice does not make perfect if one is practicing incorrectly. Effective practice requires monitoring and feedback. Who knew practice could be so complicated?
We cannot all be passionate about all things but we do need to be motivated to truly learn. How can instructors encourage students who may not have a natural interest in or desire to learn a concept, achieve mastery? Last month’s blog mentioned the importance of a growth mindset. Relevance is also a factor. The more a learner can internalize a reason to learn a concept, the more relevant it becomes and the more willing he or she is to commit to achieving mastery. Relevance comes in many shapes and sizes.” It meets an immediate need. “I have to earn money.” “I need to be able to drive to a workplace. I will learn to drive. Or it is a stepping stone to achieving a larger goal. “Christine is going to make it through chemistry because she has a goal of becoming a doctor and learning chemistry is a necessary step to help her achieve her goal”. Or it will bring some sort of intrinsic reward. Educators and parents need to persist in finding ways to help students attach relevance to what they are learning.
Once motivation has been addressed, focus comes more easily. Focused concentration on the task is essential to achieving mastery and can be enhanced by creating a structure within which to practice. Time limits, breaks, specific locations free from distraction, study partners, whatever works for the learner to create an environment conducive to promoting his or her ability to focus on the topic or skill.
Although we are all used to functioning in a world of instant communication, learning is not fast. It is a sustained process. K. Anders Ericsson calls this Deliberate Practice – “focusing on something you cannot do. It entails considerable, specific, and sustained efforts to do something you can’t do well—or even at all.” (Harvard Business School Review (a., 2007)). Without a growth mindset and passion, persistence is a challenge. If pounds or inches are not dropping off, regular visits to the gym get harder. Experiencing positive results and praise, breaking larger goals into smaller ones and the existence of an on-going support system all will help students to persist.
Absent active use of new concepts and skills, we cannot achieve deeper learning. We are left to the vagaries of good or bad memories. Each time our students write, question, draw conclusions, apply and evaluate information in a variety of real world scenarios and to previous learning experiences, they are practicing. When they do so repetitively and with feedback and input from experts, they achieve that mastery which is the goal of all educational experiences. Without meaningful practice, learning is doomed to the netherworld of “the things I have forgotten from college.”