September 29, 2020

Practise makes perfect


We’ve all heard the phrase ‘practise makes perfect’. As a secondary school Music teacher, it’s a phrase I’m quite familiar with. Perhaps, like me, it was drilled into you by a very persistent and patient piano teacher in your youth. Or perhaps it’s something you’ve found yourself saying as you console a reluctant child at their first swimming lesson, or whispering to yourself as you struggle to master a new language on Duolingo. But what does it really mean to ‘practise’?

In Outliers: The Story of Success, published in 2008, Canadian journalist Malcolm Gladwell popularised an idea called the ’10,000 hour rule’. This concept, based on a study by Swedish psychologist Anders Ericsson, is a simple idea: acquiring advanced skills requires a massive amount of time. In the book, Gladwell cites the Beatles’ four-year stint gigging in Hamburg prior to their meteoric rise to fame and Bill Gates’ incessant programming practise on his high school computer from the age of 13 as evidence that the 10,000 hour rule guarantees success in any field. 

Since the book was published, the ‘10,000 hour rule’ has been critiqued by a number of academics, educators and journalists, and most notably by Ericsson himself, who denounced the idea as ‘a provocative generalisation’. I can’t help but agree with him – 10,000 hours of misguided, inefficient piano practise will not make you the next Langm Lang, and will most likely make you miserable in the process.

However, as all educators know, there is enormous value in practise, and specifically repetitive practise of specific skills and disciplines. The common analogies for concepts like the 10,000 hour rule are always the same; great musicians, world champion athletes, and world-leading businesspeople. But practise is just as important in the classroom.

In my lesson, I’ve seen the impact of repetitive practise of specific types of exam questions on my students’ assessment results. This might seem obvious to the Maths teachers out there who are able to utilise websites like Hegarty Maths, which generates an almost unlimited number of practise questions for specific topics and concepts, but for teachers of English, humanities and the arts, such websites does not exist (yet!).

This was why I began to create ‘typology’ documents for the GCSE and A level exams that I teach, which I’m sure a common technique for many teachers. While it was never going to be the most interesting job on my to do list, creating a spreadsheet with a list of every type of question that the exam board had asked in past papers for the current specification has had a profoundly positive impact on my teaching practice of exam classes and exam results.

I used to only use past papers for my students’ mock exams, but since then I have seen the power of regular, deliberate practise. Creating lessons that focus explicitly on one type of question, unpicking it, discussing possible answers, and practising that type of question over and over again (and again!), gives students the knowledge, skills and confidence that they need to succeed when they answer that exam hall.