Just how much practice do they need?

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?

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9 thoughts on “Just how much practice do they need?

  1. It seems to me that your analysis applies not just to primary school, but to secondary school as well. I think it’s maybe a consequence of the target setting and tick box culture that we live in: one question attempted (but incorrect) = “working towards”; one question answered correctly = “secure”; and two questions answered correctly = “mastery”.

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  2. Practice is everything – not to make ‘perfect’ but to ‘enable’ at all – and to make easier. You mention multiplication tables – and for them we’re aiming for automaticity – automatic response to provide answers. The same is true for phonics – automaticity but then, with multiplication facts, to then apply to calculations – or with the alphabetic code – apply to reading and writing.

    Over and again I bang on about insufficient time and practice being afforded to children for phonics. Teachers have got stuck at the ’20 minutes a day’ for the WHOLE teaching and learning cycle: revisit and review, teach new or focus correspondence with modelling, pupil-practice at word level for reading, spelling and handwriting, apply and extend to cumulative sentences/texts. All of this in 20 minutes with a new bit of code the next day? Really?

    No wonder so many children are still being left behind – but the teachers and teaching assistants are run-ragged.

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    • Agreed! This is also controversial, but I do think that the basics need to be secured as a priority with differentiation by time (as in Shanghai, children who haven’t got the basics in maths in the morning don’t get to do the hobby lessons in the afternoon, instead being expected to catch up). I still cannot fathom why we teach French to little children who cannot speak, read or write English properly (and I love languages).

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      • The answer is of course that learning another view gives another chance (be it with different teacher ….). I am sure my English Grammar is so good because I studied foreign in Primary.

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  3. Einaldi appears to be getting a bit like our equivalent of France and the Amélie theme i.e. everyone with a piano plays it. I think you’re understating the overlap with what you know from violin and without wishing to undermine that industrious morning too much, the most popular Einaldi pieces are fairly regular and repetitive. But I think that reinforces your point because that within-piece repetition is clearly repetitive practice that lets you delegate some of it to a less conscious sub-routine while you focus on trickier bits etc.

    Given my child, I won’t stop maintaining that some children are more naturally given to quiet, stubborn and lengthy focus than others, but I reckon average child is capable of a *lot* more mostly quiet concentration than 5 minutes. Is the latter one of those credible-ish research molehills that has been carelessly turned into a mountain? For instance, I doubt I could concentrate exclusively on something for very long, but I could sit there for an hour and you’d have watch closely to spot the little breathers I take before diving back in for the next few minutes. Perhaps learning to focus is esentially about learning how to take a quick and quiet mental break, as opposed to straying too far away by doing something more disruptive e.g. start talking, fidgeting etc.

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  4. When I was on supply once – the teacher in the next room played music ‘because it helped the children concentrate’. It didn’t help mine who kept rolling their eyes and fidgeting obviously irritated, as I was, with Michael bloody Buble!

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  5. One of the factoids I remember from my NQT training was “task time in mins = age in years + 1”. It sounded scientific (it had an equation!) and I tried to make it work, so lessons had about 5 transitions to be clunky at. It was only much later that I looked for a proper source for the equation, and failed to find one.
    As for practice- yes, schools massively (factor of 5 to 10, I guess, though that is only a guess) how much practice is needed to get good at something. The killer was the “measurable progress every 20 mins” era of Ofsted. If your SLT were even a bit Ofsted obsessed, it was taboo to do any practice at all.

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