Over the weekend, I came across this video of a 3 year old American lad called Titus, doing some pretty impressive stuff with a basketball hoop:
Now, many people would describe this as ‘natural talent’. However, anyone who has read Matthew Syed’s ‘Bounce’, Doug Lemov’s ‘Practice Perfect’ or Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘Outliers’ would have a different view. They would probably suggest that young Titus has spent a great deal of his first 3 years practising his basketball shooting. That’s why he’s so good at it. Not because of any pre-determined genetic talent, but because of practice…..and lots of it.
But, it’s not quite as simple as this is it, as this video explains:
So this refines the idea of ‘practice makes perfect’. In fact, if you practice, using a technique that is not great, you’ll compound mistakes and hamper progress. What’s needed is feedback to ensure that the technique being used is perfect and then lots of practice of this technique.
So we need to provide students with lots of opportunities to practice techniques, using feedback to ensure that it is indeed ‘perfect practice’. I can see how this can be done effectively and relatively easily in subject areas where it is possible to keep coming back to fundamental techniques, such as drawing in art, hand eye coordination in PE, use of mathematical forumulae to solve problems in maths or creative writing in English.
I think it becomes more tricky to come up with ‘perfect practice opportunities’ in subjects that are very content heavy, where you have to move on to new topics every couple of lessons – such as my own subject, science. I think this has been further compounded in science, as over the last decade or so we’ve got into the habit of preparing students for short, objective tests that assess recall of a chunk of the specification, a bit of a time. As a result, we’ve neglected the skill of using their scientific knowledge to write cohesive and accurate pieces of extended writing, that requires them to explain their ideas. This is the fundamental technique that I’m working on developing with my students.
So I’ve been thinking about ways in which I can provide opportunities for ‘perfect practice’ in my own teaching.
- At the start of each lesson, instead of going straight on to the new topic, think back to the last lesson and do a quick activity/question based on that. This gives students the opportunity to go back over what they did last lesson and embed the learning, instead of just leaving it and moving on.
- Developing the idea above, but leaving a gap of 2 or 3 lessons before coming back to the learning.
- Whilst we may need to move on to new knowledge quite regularly, we can provide lots of opportunities for scientific writing practice. So for example, following Gav McCusker’s 15 minute forum on layered writing, I have been using a similar technique in science:
- As a result of using this, students are getting better and better at using their knowledge to write an extended answer – and they will now practise this regularly, with all topics that they cover.
- This requires modelling too, if it’s going to be perfect. So after they have completed their first attempt at an answer, we talk about the words/concepts they have haven’t used. If there are common ones that have been missed, we’ll then discuss together how they can be incorporated into what they have already written, to make it even better. This supports students when it comes to redrafting their work.
- In order to ensure that they are not compounding misconceptions, I use this verbal feedback technique every lesson, with as many students as I can get round. Once the feedback is given, I then ensure that they respond to the feedback there and then – closing the gap.
- It’s important that students know what excellence looks like, if they are to engage in ‘perfect practice’. So when they are doing their writing as described above, I move around the room looking for a ‘perfect answer’. Once I’ve found it, I read it out to the class. We then spend time as a class talking about what made it so good and what they need to do to get their work up to that standard. This is where the ‘bonus words’ above come from – from these exemplar responses produced by some of the students. This encourages all students to aspire to this level of excellence.
- Making the links across topics explicit and using this as an opportunity to review and reinforce learning from other topics.
- Making periodic assessments such as half termly tests, cumulative. This makes students and staff review and practice all of the learning, as opposed to small chunks. This is particularly important as we move to terminal exams in science.
I’m going to keep thinking about ways in which I can be supporting this idea of ‘perfect practice’ in a subject where, by its very nature, we have to keep moving on. Any other ideas welcomed.