Practice Doesn't Always Make Perfect
Even For "High Stakes" Testing
by Dr. Dorothy Rich
Homework is a big concern of most parents and teachers, probably because of the common view that practice leads to improvement. Everyone from Ben Franklin to Little League and Olympics coaches have drummed that into our consciousness.
Maybe so, but there's practice that leads to breakthrough performance, and there's another kind, which is akin to mind-numbing repetition. And the difference between the two is at the heart of educational reform. Unfortunately, this distinction gets very little attention.
As much as I want to believe in the value of practice, I've learned that it's more complicated than I thought it was when I routinely gave out assignments to my students or asked about it as a parent.
In school we are always telling kids to practice. Practice hard. Practice makes perfect. And on and on. We advise parents over and over: "Your children will do better if only they practice."
It's not just in school where practice is praised. I do it well outside the school walls. When my daughter told me recently how shy her three year old son is with people he doesn't already know, my standard answer jumped out: "Well, he needs more practice."
And it's not a bad answer. It's often the right answer---but not all the time. It got me thinking. My grandson might reach out to meet new people and encounter hostile responses. He might encounter rebuffs. This practicing experience in itself could be a negative experience and teach him that being friendly is not the way to go. This happens across the age span: young men and women reach out to each other to date and many are spurned. Most of us, no matter how lucky, have lots of experience with rejection.
Getting past my trite response about practice, I have increasingly come to realize that practice does not make perfect---unless at least two basic conditions are in place first. For my grandson, the practice that will make the positive difference for him is when he practices with people who give him positive feedback---so that he grows more confident. And when rejection does happen, such as "I don't want to play with you," he has someone nearby who can help him overcome this hurt.
In short, I still believe in practice but have come to realize that its success depends on two variables that may be taken too much for granted: 1) constructive feedback about the trial and error of our practice attempts and 2) coaching and mentoring from those who care about our success.
In the area of schooling and testing, these two critical determiners of achievement are almost uniformly ignored. We tell kids to practice, but many are too discouraged from previous failures or don't have the coaching it takes to know how to practice well.
It's like the difference between practicing in the dark and practicing in the light. For example, could practice all day at my computer. But unless I learned first about which keys to practice on to make certain results happen, I would be practicing in the dark.
We know about practice in sports and in music. Aside from the innate abilities of a Michael Jordan or a Wolfgang Mozart, chances are that practice cannot do it alone. Someone has to coach us and we need a chance to show what we can do. We can help parents know what re takes to help create an environment which makes it possible for children to believe that practice is worth it and that success may be down the road, if not around the corner.
The Olympics provides vivid examples. No one expects an athlete to go in to take the swimming or skiing test without prior feedback and ongoing support. In sports, we might be throwing the ball wrong from the start and keep on doing it wrong and never get better. In music, we might be holding the violin the wrong way and never elicit its beautiful sounds no matter how long we practice.
This holds true for life in school. It's not enough to tell kids to go home and practice. They have to know how to practice well and receive the kind of homework that helps them move forward, not just move around in circles. They need encouragement time with coaches -- teachers in school and parents at home -- who provide the environment where trial and error is encouraged, where mistakes are not total failures, where rejections are not fatal, where progress is achievable for lots of kids in lots of ways.
Today, as in past years, homework is important. There is no way that a school (even a good school) by itself can make sure that children learn all they have to learn. This means that, like it or not, work has to be taken home.
All homework, no matter how routine and uninspired, teaches certain basics: "You have a job to do. Do it. It takes effort and perseverance to complete the work."
But these fundamental principles are not enough. Not for today. Piles of homework in themselves offer no guarantee that children are learning the lessons necessary for success as adults. Often they're not even doing the assigned homework. Skills needed for later life include problem solving and critical thinking, organization, self-discipline, personal motivation. These are the higher order skills -- I call them "MegaSkills." In the old days, only a small percentage of students learned them. Now, all our children need them.
The best homework assignments are those that can be done only at home -- for example, reading aloud with family members and reporting back at school on what everyone liked best and why. Or a writing assignment that calls for interviewing relatives and neighbors to talks about important people in their lives. Or a science assignment that calls for experiments in the kitchen or the bathtub. Homes have resources that classrooms don't.
As educators know so well, it's not just the test that comes into the schoolroom. It's the child who's taking it, along with all the attitudes, good and bad, that come along from previous home and school experiences. To enable students to do well on tests and to be held accountable (the great buzz word today), children need the feedback and coaching similar to the kind that Olympic athletes receive.
We worry a lot about fine tuning the tests that children take. How about attention to the fine tuning that students need. They need to be optimistic. They need to see an encouraging vision before them. They need to feel "I can do it and I know how to do it."
Who's doing this for our students? We know how to find the Olympics coaches. Where are those coaches for our students?
We need to stock our schools with learning coaches for students and for their parents. These are a new kind of tutor, a specialist who connects school and home and community. These can be teachers already on the job, but they may need new skills to do this work of coaching. We need to train them, pay them, and give them time to do their work. This is an important contribution that the new Federal funds for supplemental services and teacher professional development can provide.
When we use these funds in these new ways, we're paying attention not just to the test questions, but to the children themselves and to their spirit, their heart, and their vision.
We can't go in and take the tests for our kids. They themselves need to want to do well. They themselves need to want to practice well. Most kids start out their schooling with hopes, dreams and willingness to work hard. We build on this only when we look at both the tests and the students and their lives in and out of school.
When the pre-conditions for successful practice are in place, then we can say to students, teachers and parents, "go practice!" And, then is when can expect long lasting, positive results.
©Dorothy Rich 2003