Earlier this week I was engaged in a spirited discussion with a colleague on the topic of science education. As with any discussion where both parties feel particularly invested in the topic at hand, the conversation included many examples, theories, and conjectures. At one point in the conversation, this colleague said, “You know, practice doesn’t make perfect, it makes permanent.” We were clearly both surprised with the profound nature of that statement, as the conversation literally stopped at that point for us to consider the immensity of what was said. I’m still considering it today as I write this post.
No one would argue that practice has an impact on what we do. Whether learning to drive, cook, or engage in a sporting event (my wife and daughter are catching up on Olympic results as I type), constant repetition trains the body, mind, and spirit to make certain actions effortless. Malcolm Gladwell discusses the “10,000 Hour Rule” in his book, Outliers. The idea here is that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to truly become an “expert.” While Gladwell was focusing on those folks in society who are truly “world-class elite performers,” many would agree that a large time investment is necessary to train ourselves to accomplish key tasks.
What’s interesting here is that this idea focuses on just how helpful constant repetition is. But, what is missing is that practice doesn’t always lead to a positive result. For instance, prior to making that profound statement, my colleague was explaining how he taught himself to play a number of musical instruments, including the flute. He practiced constantly and at one point, was invited to attend a recital conference with some of the best flutists in the world. Upon arriving he was about to play a piece with a number of others in attendance. As they warmed up, he could not believe how much better they sounded than he did. Though his hours of practice did make him an “expert,” they had made him an expert in playing the flute incorrectly. In fact, he stated that unlearning errors in musical instrument play was much harder than initially learning how to play them.
We see the same thing in sports (that baseball star who is an excellent fielder, but can’t seem to unlearn his poor swing structure), conversation (adding in hundreds of “ums” and “likes” as we speak), and even writing (I can’t tell you how many times I write “occasion” as “occassion”). In all these instances, practice does make us perfect, but perfect at doing the wrong thing. So, inherently, practice doesn’t always achieve something good.
The key, of course, is practicing “correctly.” And, as leaders, we must encourage both our students, and our colleagues, to not only build their skills through repetition, but to also be cognizant of the fact that just because you keep doing something, doesn’t mean what you end up with will be “right.”
Beginning to make a move towards achieving this can be challenging, but there are a number of steps we can take to make this a more effective process for everyone:
Open Their Eyes. Discuss with others that practice, by itself, isn’t necessarily a good thing.
Encourage Metacognitive Thinking. When my colleague realized that he was the least prepared of the “exceptional” flutists, he had an epiphany. These epiphanies must be made by others as well if they are to truly understand that we must practice correctly. We can engage in a wrong process one thousand times and it will still be wrong.
Provide Support. Nothing is worse than realizing that something you thought you did so well is something that you do so incorrectly (particularly if hours upon hours were spent getting to that point). Provide colleagues and students the resources they need to break the cycle, and most importantly, help them “unlearn” what needs to be changed in whatever way you can.
Share Successes and Failures. We’ve all been there. Talk about it, and listen to others.
Develop a Practice Protocol. Schools can devise methods that will lead practice to truly be perfect. These methods require three key parts.
- First, mentors and experts must be on hand (or readily available) who can help correct errors as they arise.
- Second, constant opportunities for sharing and feedback need to be provided. Even the seasoned expert can miss something from time-to-time. Discussions and feedback sessions allow even the most hidden errors to be flushed out.
- Finally, time must be scheduled for stakeholders to practice. Teachers and students are beyond overscheduled these days. Expertise requires time to develop. If we expect our colleagues and students to develop in a manner that allows them to truly become pillars of expertise, the opportunity needs to be provided for those pillars to be built.
It is a lofty goal to strive for correctness in all content and processes internalized. But, it doesn’t have to be an entirely impossible one. We know that practice does lead to better retention. Now we just have to make sure that what becomes permanent really is productive.