As you know, when I first joined the education profession pretty much everything seemed bizarre; all the wisdom and what I would consider ‘normal’ ways to teach (based on common sense, efficiency and old-fashioned parenting) were like dirty words and I found myself putting my foot in my mouth so many times! Primary education is still very progressive, despite what many say in terms of trying to deny this situation, and I’ve learned to keep my beliefs to myself, longing for a time when I can just ‘come out’. In the meantime, let’s keep up with the blogging! This blog post is about the importance of practice and why I don’t think children get anywhere near enough practice of, well, anything really. Except chatting. So much chatting….
I like subjecting my own brain to continued improvement; it’s like I want to be frustrated or something. For example one year I decided, for a laugh, to learn Mandarin Chinese and I did actually manage to accumulate knowledge of about 800 characters (I daren’t retest myself today). When I woke up this morning I decided to teach myself a piece of music on the piano just because. And I don’t even play piano (I’m a violinist). After 2 hours of intense focus I’m now able to hammer out some Einaldi. Am I just ‘one of those people’ who is naturally able to do this kind of thing? No. I’m nothing special, seriously. In fact, I’m hopelessly flawed; I’m terrible at multi-tasking, for example, needing to be hyper-organised to get through life with ballsing up too much. I just know how to break knowledge and skills into bits and dwell on each bit, not giving up.
This kind of habit does have its benefits because it seems that I can accumulate knowledge and skills at quite a fast rate and I’d love for more children to be like that too. As a teacher, I want to train children to be more focused and to achieve well so that when they get to secondary school, they are not only fabulous mathematicians and writers for example, equipped with that important foundation of knowledge, they are able to knuckle down and concentrate intensely on the subject matter before them. I don’t think this aspect of maturity happens naturally or is some kind of gift bestowed upon fortunate people; I think it is the result of deliberate training and a belief in the intrinsic benefits of practice. We are the adults and it is our job to make sure the next generation are able to concentrate. I also think that leaving this aspect of training till later childhood years does not do children any favours.
My own ‘training’ was pretty extreme to be fair. One of the schools I attended had a lot of silent, individual study and I don’t think it is coincidental that this time was also when I experienced the steepest trajectory of learning. I couldn’t have done it without the expectation of intense, silent study, reading and practice being enforced by the teachers at that school and I owe them my ability to answer a sheet of multiplication questions in seconds instead of the minutes that my current class take (which is improving). My opinion on what it takes to be truly fluent at, say, recall of multiplication facts is incredibly different to what most people in primary education seem to think is needed. Textbooks or worksheets will typically have just 10 questions per learning outcome and those who concede the importance of the evil p-word will offer that, as an extreme, maybe 20-30 questions would need to be done. Me? Maybe 100 questions of increasing difficulty worked through alone and the opportunity to return at frequent intervals, with regular testing would just about do it. You can see why I dislike the general assumption that young children should be able to chat while working because this situation trains children to not concentrate and I think many primary teachers don’t fully appreciate this because they are not subject specialists; I think subject specialists are more likely to appreciate the need for intense focus. I think children struggle with problem solving in maths for example is not just because they lack the reading fluency and personal vocabulary bank to actually decipher a question, but also because they lack the ability to concentrate enough to work out the steps or what to do. Think about this: do you remember chatting constantly while learning to drive, while doing Duolingo this morning or when trying to follow a new recipe? No.
Unlike many teachers, I don’t think that the answer to this situation is to just accept the fact that children cannot (and sometimes refuse to) concentrate these days. The general advice to primary teachers to break the lesson into 5 minute chunks with various activities, the more ‘active’ the better, would arguably make the situation worse. I’m a big fan of old-fashioned practice, whether it be simply reading, or arithmetic, in longer and longer periods of silence, not because of the silence itself, but because silence is what happens when humans choose to think instead of speak or wave their arms around. Yes, social interaction is important, incredibly important, and I certainly wouldn’t think a whole day of silence is what we should aim for (because there are benefits to sharing ideas), but I do think that children, especially those that aren’t being helped to concentrate at home, could do with forming early habits of concentration and practice in school.
So, practice makes perfect. It also makes you a better person.
Who’s with me?