kitchen table math, the sequel: Practice Makes Perfect (But only Briefly)

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Practice Makes Perfect (But only Briefly)

Sustained practice makes the kind of perfect I'm looking for.

More inspiration from Daniel Willingham:

When we refer to "practice," it is important to be clear that it differs from play (which is done purely for one's own pleasure), performance (which is done for the pleasure of others), and work (which is done for compensation). Practice is done for the sake of improvement. Practice, therefore, requires concentration and requires feedback about whether or not progress is being made. Plainly put, practice is not easy. It requires a student's time and effort, and it is, therefore, worth considering when it is appropriate.


(cross-posted on Perfect Score Project)

11 comments:

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

I think that the distinction here is a false one. The same activity can be simultaneously play, work, performance, and practice in any combination. The dimensions are orthogonal, not in opposition to each other.

Anonymous said...

"The same activity can be simultaneously play, work, performance, and practice in any combination."

Often they are not.

As an example, a chess player may decide that he needs to improve his "rook and pawn" endgame skills. To do this, he might get a list of the variations that can come up and play them again and again against a computer until he can routinely win.

This activity isn't performance. Nor would it usually be described as play.

But this sort of thing is how one gets better at chess.

Same thing for other activities like sports. One might spend an hour a day in a batting cage working on hitting a particular type of pitch. Again, this isn't performance nor play (play would be a scrimmage game ... much more fun, but much less efficient in terms of getting better).

-Mark Roulo

postijen said...

I'd agree that those distinctions are valid. They might not describe wholly different activities, but they describe differences in intensity, focus, and level of detail.

It also rather makes the point that the "play" portion (not called that, but the "try to figure this out with manipulatives in a group") of a lot of math classes doesn't sink it, doesn't lead to the abstraction that it should.

It's because students approach it as play, as done for fun (pleasure).

The other salient feature that he points out is that practice doesn't feel good most of the time. The thrill comes at the end, you know, when you don't have to practice it anymore!

That's the hard part of any kind of learning requiring practice -- waiting for the pay-off. Many kids today don't have that kind of self-control/discipline required of them at any other time than school (and sports if they stick with them long enough).

GoogleMaster said...

I have had several music teachers say that it is not that Practice Makes Perfect, but that Practice Makes Permanent.

If you practice bad habits, you will ingrain them.

SteveH said...

"Sustained practice makes the kind of perfect I'm looking for."

This is especially true for the SAT where speed is so essential. I've slacked off for a few weeks and now I have to slow down and think more. This is not about understanding for me. I can do all of the problems if I have enough time.

Hard work is not an indication of effectiveness, and fun or ease of learning is not necessarily an indication of failure. However, generally speaking, ...


The SAT remind me of what my son does for music. He practices (over the years) many basic skills and techniques. (hard work) He also puts them all together for the performance or judging of a piece. (more like fun work) The best performance of a piece isn't something he should be able to do at any point in the future with no prep work. No one thinks that is the goal. This means that musicians (or athletes) often plan to "peak" at the time of the performance. Over-practice can be as bad as underpractice.

This isn't true for things like knowing your times table or quickly dealing with fractions or percents. This is more true for remembering all of the geometry shortcuts or variations in counting problems. Once you get past the basics, I think there are other practice methods that can be used, including, of course, real practice tests.

I've become much more focused on real questions and real test conditions. My son's piano teacher says that the goal is to (with little or no warmup) be able to sit down and play a piece perfectly. This won't be true six months after performing the piece.


Getting a perfect SAT score is like preparing for a music performance or a sports competition, you need to divide problems into either basic skills (technique) or simulation of taking a real test (performance). I think effectiveness comes with how much work you put into the feedback loop of the learning process. I know that I get lazy after doing practice questions. I look at what I got wrong (or why it took me so long), but I don't always follow up to fix the issues.

ChemProf said...

"If you practice bad habits, you will ingrain them."

I think Catherine likes to say "Perfect practice makes perfect," but absolutely! That is one of my problems with discovery math -- with insufficient feedback, students can just ingrain bad habits or misunderstandings instead of developing the right idea. And fixing a bad habit is WAY harder than starting off with a good habit!

palisadesk said...

The "practice makes permanent" phrase reminded me of a thoughtful piece by Dr. Kerry Hempenstall (a research polymath and DI guru from Australia) of the same name:

Practice Makes Permanent

This essay deals mainly with the topic of beginning reading instruction but is worth a read for those interested in this topic and some of the related science.

postijen said...

That's one difference between reading and math for schoolchildren. If you're reading a book and not understanding it, you know that and can either re-read or ask for help, etc. If you're practicing math problems and getting answers, you often don't know that you don't know. Math homework done incorrectly...worse than none at all?

palisadesk said...

If you're reading a book and not understanding it, you know that and can either re-read or ask for help, etc.

Indeed, you may know when you're reading without understanding, but many children do not know this. They may decode inaccurately, miss critical words that change the meaning (like "not"), fail to follow complex sentence structure, or simply misunderstand the gist of the passage. Typically such students -- and they are numerous -- have no awareness that they "don't understand," and they don't seek help. As in math, practising their mistakes probably makes them less proficient, not more.

Often these children have comprehension difficulties with oral language, as well, but these are more likely to be discernible due to the influence of body language and feedback from the others with whom they are conversing.

ChemProf said...

I had wondered about that, palisadesk, so was glad to see your comment. We've talked about students not reading sentences from left to right, but jumping around the page looking for key words, which is another mistake that has been practiced to automaticity.

Cal said...

A minor point, but speed is almost entirely irrelevant to the SAT. I tutor and teach both the SAT and ACT, and while the ACT score (all sections but English) is influenced by speed of working, the SAT time allowances are so generous that time has nothing to do with a high score. In fact, anyone who can get a 650 or higher on the math section can finish 90% of a 25 minute section in 15 minutes, leaving them more than enough time to check their work and do one or two harder problems with a bit more attention.

Problems missed at that level of achievement are not due to more time needed, but attention errors. That's why, by the way, the SAT lost all relationship with IQ scores back in the mid-90s.