Rossall INSPIRE is the umbrella under which members of the Rossall community come together to share knowledge, ideas and perspectives on all aspects of education and learning. Deputy Head (Academic), Dr Sean Knox, explores the myth of ‘practice makes perfect’ and reveals the significance of deliberate, focused practice, and how quality, not quantity, of practice drives lasting progress and success.
As a starting point I want to take you back to the early 1990s, and the image of a young boy sat at the dining table in his grandmother’s house.
The above young boy actually. A little bit cheeky, maybe, but always eager to please and well-behaved, especially for his grandmother! I was, however, maybe a little too obsessed with Postman Pat, Thomas the Tank Engine and television in general. I’m still not quite sure how I don’t have square eyes – I was certainly repeatedly told I would have!
On the dining table would be my handwriting practice booklet, though as a 3/4/5 year old practising my handwriting wasn’t top of my to-do list. I was much more interested in the TV shows I mentioned. But after I’d tokenistically completed a page my grandmother would come along, look over, turn the page and express the line a young child never wants to hear…
Practice makes perfect.
I imagine everyone, at some point, has had this phrase spoken to them. Whether to do with school work, a sporting activity or a hobby, it’s a common phrase which suggests that if you repeat a particular skill enough times then you will eventually be able to execute it perfectly.
But as we know from last week’s Rossall INSPIRE column from Ms Porovic, the pursuit of perfection is problematic. Indeed educational and scientific research increasingly shows that practice does not make perfect. Or to be more precise, practice for the sake of doing more, doing it passively, automatically, without reflection and feedback, does not result in improvement. It is not simply a question of time spent doing the activity; there is no simple positive correlation between time invested and mastery of a particular skill or area of knowledge.
This is something that Matthew Syed (2011), in his excellent book ‘Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice’ reflects upon, using as his example time spent driving a car. This is something that most of us will be able to relate to.
Having checked over the weekend, since January I have driven over 8300 miles, since learning to drive I have probably driven over 200,000 miles but, alas, I am not as skilled a driver as Lewis Hamilton or Max Verstappen. In fact, I am likely a worse driver now than when I passed my test. Why, if I have done so much practice of driving, have I not developed expert status?
Syed (2011) notes that when we drive we probably do not (without seeking to incriminate ourselves) actively and purposefully think that much about the act of driving: of what exactly it is that we are doing? We don’t ask ourselves why and how we could do it better. Indeed, many of us may not be too receptive to feedback from ‘back seat drivers’. Reflecting on my own driving, I am probably listening to a podcast or the radio, thinking about dinner or books that need marking, or a student I need to catch up with. In other words, when we drive we are on autopilot.
To demonstrate how to get out of autopilot mode and make practice count, Syed (2011) draws on the work of the psychologist S.W Tyler. Below are two lists of anagrams:
|LIST A||LIST B|
I am confident that we all can decipher List A with great ease and that we most likely find List B more of a challenge. I was impressed in assembly on Monday at the speed at which a few of our students recognised the words in both lists are the same.
This is relevant because S.W Tyler’s research found that when participants provided with List A were later questioned they were not very good at recalling the words that they had unscrambled. Whereas those that were presented with list B had much better recall.
Why? Because List A is too easy, it doesn’t require any real cognitive work, whereas List B requires participants to engage in deeper concentration to try and figure out the anagram. The fact that participants had to actively focus on trying to work it out helped to imprint it on their memory.
This is why practice doesn’t make perfect. It is also why the right kind of practice does make permanent and result in better performance.
In order to be effective, practice must be purposeful, it must be deliberate. It is the quality of practice that makes the difference. For practice to enhance performance it needs to require you to concentrate and engage in deep, focused thought. You need to be active in gaining feedback on your practice and areas for development and, more importantly, act on such feedback. Being in a comfort zone, coasting along effortlessly lulls one into a fall sense of development and improvement. It is a ‘practice without purpose’ mindset.
It is for these reasons that ‘Practice’ is one of the key elements of our teaching and learning core.
In frequently building in opportunities for our students to undertake purposeful, deliberate, active, concentrated and thought-requiring practice we are preparing them to enjoy academic success. Moreover, we are preparing them with the self-knowledge that in ‘positive stress’ situations they are able to comfortably demonstrate their understanding.
Practice does not make perfect, but perfect practice makes progress permanent. That is what we should all aim for.
Syed M (2011): ‘Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice’. Fourth Estate; London.