Practice makes permanent | Secrets to success

Doug Lemov once said that practice makes permanent – and it’s true. The more we practice, the more we will remember what we have practiced. Will what we recall be correct? Hopefully, but not if we’ve consistently practiced the wrong thing.

With this in mind, I’ve become a lot more cognisant whenever I’ve been learning Spanish, or practicing on my ukulele, or during a Taekwondo lesson, that the instructor is very quick to correct any errors on my part. They don’t want me to make my mistakes becoming permanent.

It’s that kind of mindset which is present in Chris Runeckles’ Making Every History Lesson Count.* He discusses six guiding principles to good pedagogy, including challenge, explanation, modelling, feedback and questioning. Today, we’re going to take a look at my key takeaways from his chapter on practice.

What have I learned that’s improved my pedagogy?

Deep focus

I’ve advocated for deep focus for as long as I can remember, but that was without any kind of evidential backing. I just knew that it worked, not why it worked. However, cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham says that we need to study new concepts for an additional 20% of the time taken already to master it if we want a truly embedded understanding, and an ability to retain that information.

What better way to do this than through deep focus? Present your students with new material in small steps and give them ample time to practice after each stage. Rosenshine warns that there is a danger that skipping practice for new content will result in students being unable to store that new information effectively, making their learning a waste of time.

We have exam board expectations to meet, so I get that it can be tricky fitting in all that time for content acquisition, but try your best to strike the right balance between new content and practice.

Two types of practice

We have two types of practice in the classroom. Practice for fluency is all about becoming automatic in our ability to recall information. To help learners here, you should:

  1. Decide what they need to know
  2. Decide when they will first encounter new vocabulary, and let them know about it in detail
  3. Decide when they will see these words again
  4. Bring up these new concepts in subsequent lessons. This is done really easily; just quickly mention that ‘this links to our concept of…’.

The other type of practice, purposeful practice, is all about remembering new knowledge, applying critical thinking to that knowledge, and translating that into our writing. The amount of help you offer he should depend on each individual student, but Runeckles writes about a really useful practice continuum that I think is worth sharing:

Dependence (they need you entirely) —> heavy guidance (they still need a lot of help) —> lighter guidance (you can nudge them in the right direction) —> independence (they’re working by themselves) —> autonomy (you may as well not be there. Well done!)

Essential strategies

Finally, here’s what you can do during your lessons to give your learners the best opportunities to practice perfectly:

  • Knowledge organisers: don’t overwhelm with too much information! Better to have separate organisers for each topic, rather than squeezing everything into size 7 font. Use these in conjunction with the other activities below.
  • Checklists: let learners tick off when they feel they’ve achieved mastery over a particular topic.
  • Retrieval practice: I’ve already spoken in depth about the wonders of spaced repetition – returning to a topic repeatedly – so go ahead and read that blog post if you fancy an in-depth look.
  • Present it differently: combine your explanations with a news clip and an historians’ views to present new content in a variety of ways.
  • Practice thinking hard: strategies like diamond nines and continuum lines will help students to think critically about new content.
  • Create the culture: highlight excellent work that you see while wondering the classroom, set clear expectations about how much practice students will be doing, and limit distractions to reduce cognitive overload and focus thinking.
  • Scaffold: know who needs greater interventions than others, when to chunks information, and when to remove scaffolds. Sentence starters may help some, or inhibit others, so you need to know your class really well.

Those are my key takeaways from Chris Runeckles’ chapter on practice. What will you be employing in your pedagogy?


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