Math, Professional Development, Teaching and Instruction

Purposeful Practice

I have been trying to consolidate my beliefs and understandings about practice the last few weeks.  As the mother of a hockey player and two dancers I am all too familiar with the idea of practice in sport.  In their activities my children have the opportunity to work on isolated skills repeatedly until they become fluid, efficient and second nature.  Their coaches are constantly giving them feedback, modelling and helping them get the “feel” for their sport.  These practiced skills are constantly being put into use…be it a game or a dance.  It is in those game situations where I really see my kids light up.  They love to play, perform and just plain have FUN!!  In those moments all of the practice becomes worth it and it is in those moments they become reenergize for and reinvested in further practice.
It is with this notion of practice in my head that I began to explore what practice is in education.  How it is like practice in sport?  I do believe that practice is important in both sport and students learning, but I also believe that not all practice is created equal.  Some practice can support learning, consolidate understanding and build confidence for students while other practice can frustrate, confuse and create a barrier for learning.   Practice can make “perfect” or at least better but it can also make permanent…and if the practice isn’t effective we run the risk of making permanent misconceptions.
But what is “perfect” practice?  Can “perfect” practice really exist?  I do not think that “perfect” is an attainable goal but I do think that purposeful is.  Purposeful practice implies that teachers and coaches have an aim…intent…goal…target for the practice they want students to engage in.  They identify a student/player need, envision what success would look like and with those things in mind create a plan to support the learning with practice.  Purposeful practice takes  careful thinking into the what, how and why of  the practice with the goal of furthering individual students’ learning in ways that are the most meaningful.  It is more than just practice for practice sake, more than a stack of worksheets for all students to complete…it is practice with purpose, practice that is deliberate, powerful and focused.  The thing that I think we as teachers need to remember and that coaches do so well, is to put the practice into the game.  After all it is in the game where the FUN is.
As I continue to think about Purposeful Practice I am consolidating my beliefs into what it truly is in education.  These beliefs are far from set in stone but are hopefully the start of a discussion.
My Purposeful Practice Beliefs:
  • Students should practice what they understand.  Practice without understanding can change the goal of the practice from fluidity of skills to simply getting to the end of the page to make the teacher happy.
  • Practice should focused on supporting individual student learning challenges and enhancing strengths.
  • Practice should be focused on progress and monitored constantly.  If a student is not progressing then the practice needs to change.
  • Practice can be and should be messy…we need to see where errors are occurring so that we can help.
  • When students make mistakes (and they will)  teachers need to be there to help them by offering support, feedback and additional instruction.  We should use practice to inform instruction.
  • Practice should be sustained over time.  It is not a one time thing.  In order for practice to become permanent students will need to move the learning into their  long-term memory
  • Students should be given opportunities to put their practice into authentic “game like” situation as often as possible.  It is through the game that students can discover the purpose for the skills, transfer them to new situations and make connections.
  • Practice can be cooperative and noisy.  Students can learn from each other.
  • Others???

8 thoughts on “Purposeful Practice”

  1. Good post, but my big question is WHERE CAN I GET A TIM HORTON’S RED WING JERSEY?

    Seriously, the lack of purpose is so soul crushing. I hate seeing my kids (middle school) getting 40 exercises. If they get it, boring. If they don’t, misery. Plus it’s not equipping them or building capacity or…

    The biggest point is the raising and sharing of questions. Having to get them all right is worse than useless.

  2. I totally agree. I have been a coach and a math teacher and I have come to understand that the purpose of practice is not to be successful at practicing. Practice is in service to thinking and behaving like an athelete or in this case, a mathematician. Practice should be carefully designed to enhance specific skills needed within the context of the real game.

    On a slightly different note, practice can be placed into more engaging situations to allow students to get the practice they need and receive additional benefit. If mathematical practice is placed into a game situation, then students receive the added benefit of fun. Perhaps even more desirable for developing mathematical thinking, practice can also be used to develop a mathematical pattern or solve a mathematical puzzle. For instance, students could be asked to develop a strategy for using two digits to create a power with the greatest value. Students may quickly develop a conclusion that the largest of the two digits should be used as the exponent. The questions then becomes “What if your digits are 2 and 3?” and more testing ensues. In coming to these conclusions and being able to mathematically defend them, students will have to use repeated multiplication of the base many times AND they will also be using that skill to develop competence in mathematical reasoning. Not only are students developing automaticity, they are also thinking like mathematicians and for me, that is what I hope for.

  3. Love this topic. Just finished reading “Bounce” by Matthew Syed. In it, he references a lot of Dweck’s work and discusses “purposeful practice” as the key to success… rather than talent.

  4. I am a student from South Alabama and currently enrolled in EDM310. I totally agree on how practice does not make perfect but it can make it better. Nobody can be absolutely perfect but the teachers can be part of the students experience in advancing their knowledge in the subject matter.The teachers definitely need to give the students enough practice time so they can make sure the students understand the subject. Part of making mistakes is learning from the mistakes. Games make learning fun and if we get on the students level, the students are more than likely to understand the concept better.

  5. I agree with your blog, If we get our kids to practice as much as they practice sports we would all have scholars! I look forward to reading more blogs in the future, My name is Shaun Coleman a student in EDM310 class at USA

  6. I am a student in EDM 310 at the University of South Alabama. I completely agree with this post. Teachers should encourage children to practice, practice, practice. Also, children need to understand that it is okay to make mistakes and that nobody is perfect.

  7. Hi, my name is Candace Buzbee and I am a student in EDM310 at the University of South Alabama. I really enjoyed reading this post! It is so true! Practice is such an important part of anything; may it be school, sports, or dance. Thanks for the ideas! I will definitely use them when I start teaching!


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