You might have heard that it takes ‘10,000 hours’ to excel at something. But there’s a lesser known finding from research into expertise that could radically improve your students’ results by questioning our assumptions about learning. It is this: while ability matters at the beginning, in the long run it’s the quantity and quality of practice that separates the best from the rest.
According to researcher Anders Ericsson, it’s time to ditch the old-fashioned approach of: teach lots of knowledge and then rely on students to apply it. And before you reply ‘I do get my students to practise’, he’s not talking about doing worksheets or textbook exercises. ‘Purposeful’ practice means giving students a small amount of input, then quickly getting stuck into solving challenging problems. Let them work together, try, fail, and give then immediate, individualised feedback. Gradually ramp up the demand through applying and analysing knowledge. In one experiment, students who learned physics this way did twice as well as those following the traditional approach.
I know this a big claim. But the evidence comes from decades of research into many different intellectual fields. Read Anders Ericsson’s book ‘Peak’. It blew me away, and could benefit you more than any CPD you’ll get (listen to the audio if you don’t have time to read).
How do you implement ‘purposeful practice’ when there are so few sources around? Well, not surprisingly, we have a product designed for this – the Mastery Practice Book. It takes the concepts in Year 7 (11-12 year old) science and challenges students to solve 50 different kinds of ‘apply’ problem. Even more important, it gets to the heart of why Ericsson believes purposeful practice works: helping students develop the mental representations experts use.
When faceted with unfamiliar situations like in the demanding new GCSEs, experts don’t dive in and pick a formula. They follow 3 steps:
1. Stand back and look at what the problem is asking – Detect.
2. Think about which concepts or principles are relevant – Recall.
3. Make a plan for getting to the solution – Solve.
How does Practice Book teach students to Detect, Recall and Solve?
- Worked examples model the 3 steps
- Students practise a very similar problem (try, fail)
- They look at the answer and model to see what they did wrong (feedback)
- They work on the next problem (do differently)
Don’t wait until GCSE to start using purposeful practice. You need start it early on – in Year 7. By GCSE, those students labelled as ‘low ability’ could well have turned into pretty high achievers.
Do you agree, or not? I’d love your opinions.