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).
It's true that teachers get feedback from their students. You can tell if a lesson is going well or poorly, but that sort of feedback is not sufficient because it's not terribly specific. For example, your students' bored expressions tell you they aren't listening, but they don't tell you what you might do differently. In addition, you probably miss more of what's happening in your classroom than you think you do. You are busy teaching and don't have the luxury of simply watching what is happening in your classroom. It's hard to think about how things are going when you' re in the middle of trying to make them go well! A final reason it's hard to critique your own teaching is that we are not impartial observers of our own behavior. Some people lack confidence and are harder on themselves than they ought to be whereas others (most of us, actually) interpret their world in ways that are favorable to themselves. Social psychologists call this the self-serving bias. When things go well, it's because we are skilled and hardworking. When things go poorly, it's because we were unlucky, or because someone else made a mistake (Figure 4).
For these reasons, it is usually quite informative to see your class through someone else's eyes.
In addition to requiring feedback, practice usually means investing time in activities that are not the target task itself but done for the sake of improving that task. For example, aspiring chess players don't just play lots of chess games. They also spend considerable time studying and memorizing chess openings and analyzing the matches that other experts have played (Figure 5). Athletes of all sorts do weight and cardiovascular training to improve their endurance in their sport (Figure 6).
To summarize, if you want to be a better teacher, you cannot be satisfied simply to gain experience as the years pass. You must also practice, and practice means (1) consciously trying to improve, (2) seeking feedback on your teaching, and (3) undertaking activities for the sake of improvement, even if they don't directly contribute to your job. There are lots of ways you could do these things, of course. Here I suggest one method.
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