Stop Calling it "Work"

There are certain times in my career where a fad has entered the profession and absolutely run rampant.  Growth Mindset is a perfect example of this and if we go back 5 years or so there wasn’t an exam preparation lesson in the land that didn’t purport that if we work hard, believe in ourselves and don’t give up we can accomplish anything.  It sounds like it makes perfect sense too. Except that it has a major flaw. Work.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Aristotle (via Will Durant)

The power of practice over work cannot be overstated as it contains a key difference; experts.

Kicking Goals

The evidence that practice leads to success was most evident to me during the SuperBowl last weekend.  To watch a field goal kicker in action, for example, is to watch the culmination of thousands of hours of deliberate practice.  Tens of thousands of deliberately practiced kicks so that when the time comes and the SuperBowl hinges on it, it is near to impossible to not get it right.  Elite sport is full of similar examples from golf swings to tennis serves and they all have that same foundation of practice underpinning them.

What does this have to do with the classroom?

Students need to practice succeeding.  Remember the quote above: “We are what we repeatedly do.”  When they are first learning something students need support in order to succeed; they need to be shown what succeeding looks like; they need someone to guide their attempts at succeeding.  Ultimately they need to practice it. Do it right until it is impossible to not do it right.

Practice without the guidance of an expert is just work.  I could work at my goal kicking by taking ten thousand kicks at goal and never come close to the precision of an NFL kicker.  I haven’t had the correct coaching and therefore would just be repeatedly practicing ineffective techniques. I would probably lose interest after a certain number of failed attempts and put gradually less effort into the kicks until they became counter productive.  Novices need guidance, scaffolding and feedback to secure their knowledge and help them become experts.

In the classroom

Tom Sherrington gives some great examples of Practice in action in his blog HERE and explores the principle of practice in lessons as part of his writing on Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction in way more detail HERE.  Tom gives some great, practical examples of what practice could look like in the classroom and I have been honing what I ask students to do in my lessons with these principles in mind.  We have embedded skills and practiced them to the point of automatic inclusion. The structure of a response to a reading section question in English Language GCSE for example has been practiced to the point where my students don’t have to think about it and can focus their working cognitive load on analysis of the language.  We have practiced to the point of it now being rare that they use an ineffective and efficient structure.

Focused Practice

Now this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t work hard at our practice.  No athlete half heartedly practices their sport and expects success and they certainly don’t turn up on match day expecting to turn in a half hearted performance for the big game.  Distraction has a huge impact on our students’ ability to commit to focussed practice. Our inability to multitask has been well written about HERE by Paul Kirschner and HERE from Oxford Learning and during practice tasks this inability becomes absolutely acute.  I tell my students that when the clock starts on a timed practice task they should treat it like a final exam using every second of it for writing and leaving nothing out.  “We are what we repeatedly do”. If I allow my students to set low expectations for themselves during practice they will become good at half hearted performances and are more likely to produce that performance in assessments and exams.  They deserve better. We practice succeeding and we repeat it often.

Tom Sherrington again writes and speaks brilliantly about moving from a culture of “doing” to a culture of “learning”.  I made this mindset shift myself and cannot emphasise strongly enough how powerful the new perspective is. A similarly powerful mindset shift for me was the shift from “work” to “practice”.  I now refer explicitly to “practice” whenever I want students to do something and use it as a kind of filter when I am planning my lessons and I make no apologies for having students repeatedly practice essential skills.

So here are my top tips for a successful shift to a culture of practice:

  1. Refer to Practice often – Practice has become part of my everyday vocabulary.  I use it at all points in the lesson and when planning. By viewing activities through a “what is practice?” lens, it helps me filter out empty activities that are more about doing than learning.
  2. Expect maximum effort – I expect nothing less than 100% effort in our practice tasks and expect students to treat each and every one as if it were their World Cup Final moment.  I aim to minimise distractions so that focused practice is more easily achieved and maximum effort more easily attained. Humans can not multitask so don’t assume mild chatter is conducive to a productive practice environment.  The practice WILL suffer.
  3. Fade out the support over time – I use an on screen timer for every task I set and my expectation is that they give the task their absolute focus from the moment the time starts until the buzzer sounds.  With some groups/students this might mean breaking a 20 minute writing practice down into 5 minute blocks so we can regroup and reset the expectations and with others it might mean that there is a heavy degree of scaffolding to help them focus throughout.
  4. Practice succeeding until it is impossible to not succeed – Rosenshine’s principal of an 80% success rate stands true in my experience.  Model, guide, scaffold, re-teach and intervene as appropriate but make sure your students practice succeeding and turn success into a habit not an act.
  5. Build up stamina – Writing is hard work.  The only way to get better at writing is to practice writing therefore my students write often and for sustained periods.  One of our English Literature exams is 2 and a half hours long. Students need to be exposed to that level of sustained concentration and writing and practice until they can write the required amount easily.  The same applies in across subjects where students wane in the latter questions of an exam. Build their stamina to the point they can complete question 50 with the same vigour as question 5.

The Bottom Line

The shift from a culture of “work” to a culture of “practice” is one that takes a conscious effort.  It is often said that “engaged students make better learners” however this is a false dichotomy. Students can be fully engaged in the meaningless work of kicking goals without ever learning how to kick them effectively.  Engaging our students in empty “work” will keep them busy, it will make it look like learning is happening at a superficial glance, but, if we want students to actually learn, we must create a culture of “practice” where everything they are asked to do hones a particular skill or sharpens the memory of explicit knowledge. Without deliberate practice, there is no learning.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Aristotle (via Will Durant)

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