The Importance of Practice
Until now, I have been a bit casual in how I have talked about practice. I have made it sound synonymous with experience. It is not. Experience means you are simply engaged in the activity. Practice means you are trying to improve your performance. For example, I' m not an especially good driver, even though I've been driving for about thirty years. Like most people my age I' m experienced—that is, I've done a lot of driving—but I' m not well practiced, because for almost all of that thirty years I didn't try to improve. I did work at my driving skills when I first got behind the wheel. After perhaps fifty hours of practice, I was driving with skill that seemed adequate to me, so I stopped trying to improve (Figure 2). That's what most people do for driving, golf, typing, and indeed most of the skills they learn.
The same seems to be true for teachers too. A great deal of data show that teachers improve during their first five years in the field, as measured by student learning. After five years, however, the curve gets flat, and a teacher with twenty years of experience is (on average) no better or worse than a teacher with ten. It appears that most teachers work on their teaching until it is above some threshold and they are satisfied with their proficiency. It's easy to criticize such teachers and to think indignantly, "They should always strive to improve!" Certainly we' d all like to think that we are always seeking to better ourselves, but we also must be realistic. Practice, as I' m about to describe, is hard. It takes a great deal of work, and very likely work that infringes on time that might be spent with family or in other pursuits. But I am trusting that if you've read this far into the book, you are prepared to do some hard work. So let's get started.
First, we need to define practice. We've said that it's more than engaging in the activity; you also have to try to improve. But how? First, practice entails getting feedback from knowledgeable people. Writers seek criticism from editors. Basketball teams hire coaches. Cognitive scientists like me get written appraisals of our experimental work from expert colleagues. When you think about it, how can you possibly improve unless there is some assessment of how you' re doing? Without feedback, you don't know what changes will make you a better cognitive scientist, golfer, or teacher (Figure 3).
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