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Posts Tagged ‘practice

The adage “practice makes perfect” is an imperfect one. There is no point practising mindlessly nor is there any actual muscle memory. Such unscientific assumptions have, unfortunately, become the basis for homework to keep kids busy or for blind drill.

We now have neurological and cognitive research that helps us understand what practice does and which kinds of practice actually help.

Video source

This TED-Ed video briefly explains how our psychomotor functions refine with practice. I fill in a few blanks based on basic biology and educational psychology.

Neurologically speaking, effective practice is due to the increased myelination of our motor neurones. This strengthens neural transmission, i.e., the signals from the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) to the peripheral nervous system (nerves connected to muscles).

Cognitive science has also unlocked secrets on what makes for effective practice. Such practice is consistent and focused to target at weakness or what is “at the edge” of current abilities.

While drills might focus on what you are already competent at, cognitive science suggests that we concentrate on what is just outside our zone of proximal development.

The video focused largely on psychomotor skills and did not dwell on social aspects of cognition or construction. These are just as important, and arguably more so, in the contexts of learning languages, negotiating cultures, or establishing schema and mindsets.

We have much to learn about how and why we learn. The worst thing we can do is ignore good research and listen only to unquestioned tradition.

The unstated theme for this tweet is foresight.

Foresight is the difference between a good lesson plan and a bad one.

Foresight might also distinguish a good leader from a bad one.

The good news about foresight is that it does not have to be something you are born with. You can develop it by sharpening your mind almost like you would sharpen pencils. It stems from the practice of trying to see something interesting in the mundane.

There are a few of my blog entries that seem to get hits every day even though they are a few years old. One of them is “Alternative to ‘best’ practices?“.

That particular reflection was a series of a few. To provide some context, I am listing my thoughts on this contentious issue in today’s entry.

  1. 15 Sep 2012: There is no BEST practice (Contexts may not transfer)
  2. 17 Sep 2012: Alternative to “best” practices? (Contexts are different; best implies there is no need to get even better)
  3. 22 Jul 2014: Can practices be transmitted? (There is signal loss; not all signals are relevant or timely)
  4. 24 Sep 2014: Be wary of “best practices”: Slides 5-9 (Best for whom? Have you considered all contexts?)


Just Beware by MTSOfan, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License   by  MTSOfan 

I was not the first to write against “best practices” and I will not be the last. Here are a few other bloggers or authors who have been more articulate than me with their thoughts about this issue.

  1. The Sham of Best Practices by Larry Cuban
  2. Why Best Practices Don’t Work for Knowledge Work by Luis Suarez
  3. On Best Practices by Shelley Blake-Plock
  4. “Best Practice”—The Enemy of Better Teaching by Bradley Ermeling, James Hiebert, and Ronald Gallimore

Earlier this month I read an ST forum letter written by a person who hoped that there was some way to retain older teachers because they could transmit best practices.

I have reflected on why I think we should not take the phrase “best practices” seriously [1] [2].

Now I am wondering if practices can actually be transmitted. By that I think the writer meant the passing on or handing down of practices like rituals, stories, and examples. The thing about such transmission is that the context and meaning for such practices often gets lost.

Even the transmission of light is not without incident. It can be reflected, refracted, diffused, or diffracted so much so that what it used to represent is not the same as the original.

I do not discount the good work of experienced teachers. But we must distinguish between the experienced teachers who continue to learn and those who rely on outdated formulae.

Both types of teachers can offer “best” practices, but one set of experiences is more valuable than the other. One set accommodates, and is perhaps strengthened by the reflection, refraction, diffusion, or diffraction of practice.

Ask the average teacher how s/he implements game-based learning and you might hear a description something like this. The “games”:

  • are not designed by them but by a vendor of an LMS or CMS.
  • are colourful to “attract” or “engage” the learner.
  • might look like the screenshot below.

None of these factors make the learner’s experience one of gaming nor is the activity designed around authentic game-based learning principles.

When my son did his vacation homework recently, this “game” told him that his dog was trapped in a burning house. He had to rescue his pet by answering questions about fractions.

What is wrong here?

The designer of the activity hung the threat of the dog dying in a fire as a disincentive. Just as gamers do not like being made to play, you do not guilt a learner into learning.

The task (solving fractions) had nothing to do with putting out the fire or rescuing the dog. This was thinly veiled, more colourful drill-and-practice. The task was not authentic. I offer our proof-of-concept mobile game, Dollar Dash, as an example of a more authentic design.

When my son completed the exercise and saved the dog, both my son and I wondered what the graphic would have been like if the dog died in the fire. A gamer would explore that outcome because there are no adverse consequences. However, this experience is designed largely with one outcome in mind, not several.

Experiences like this “hotdog drill” create a wrong impression of how educational technologies can help learners, and worse, perpetuate this sort of thinking.


This is one of the pictures that my son’s teacher provided as practice for his oral exam next Monday. Along with the picture were some do’s and don’ts like talking about what, where, who and when, and not using past tense.

I think that the point of an oral exam is not just to test the mechanics of spoken language (grammar, sentence structure) but also the ability to tell stories (interpret, imagine, interact with your audience).

So we practiced. But the somewhat complex scaffold sometimes got in the way of my 7-year-old’s natural storytelling ability.

This picture was cropped from a larger one. I showed my son the whole picture and he struggled to tell me a coherent story. But ask him to describe a game he likes to play or something funny that happened last month and you will have trouble getting him to stop. He is also constantly drawing comics and telling me stories with his LEGO mini figures.

So I am confident that he has the oral skills. We just have to limit him to what his teacher expects. I provided a simpler scaffold: State where this place is, who is present and what is happening. The latter two questions provide opportunities for interpretation and imagination.

After we practised this, we decided to let our imaginations loose and wondered about the wiggly lines near the baby’s mouth. These are meant to indicate the baby’s cries.

But we wondered if they could be commando worms that were on a mission to attack an evil baby overlord. One team of worms (the three straight lines on the table) pushed the book on evil baby’s head while the other team conducted a ground assault!

I doubt that his teacher would appreciate that interpretation of the image. But you can certainly measure a child’s ability to speak in either case.

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