Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Practise, Practise, Practise!

You have no idea how long I just spent deciding whether to spell practise the verb way (with an s) or the noun way (with a c) in the title. I think the expression is giving a command, so I decided to go for verb. And that's your literacy lesson for today.

Back to maths...

Imagine this situation: you're teaching, say, pie charts to, say, year 7s. You take them through an example and leave them to finish the question off individually. You then go through the answer. Then you get the pupils to hold up their traffic light cards to show whether they understand and got the right answer. Almost the whole class hold up their green card. You then say, "Good, in that case, do this one", indicating an identical question which has different numbers.

What is wrong with this scene?

In my opinion, nothing. However, some people, not mentioning any organisations (*cough* OfSTED *cough*) would say (did say, in fact) that there is a fatal flaw in the above.

All of the pupils hold up green, indicating they can do it. So why give them another question to do? Surely that's just a waste of time?

This might just sound like I'm being bitter about getting a worse observation grade than I would have liked (and let's face it, I am), but I just can't seem to come around to this way of thinking. In maths, you can't do something correctly once and assume you have secured that skill enough to remember it for the rest of the year, or even the rest of the day. My year 7s told me they could do that question. But transferring that to answering another question with different numbers, even if the method is exactly the same, is not trivial for most children. By rehearsing the skill again and again, it embeds it in their memories.

In addition, we all know what year 7s are like: they're either super-confident and claim that everything is easy and they can do it all, or they're the opposite and declare everything impossibly difficult. My class seems to be entirely made up of the former, perhaps because that's usually my own attitude towards learning anything new (which is why I injure myself so often in Pilates). I knew that my class holding up green traffic lights had to be taken with a pinch of salt. Green doesn't really indicate that they get something, it more indicates that they are willing to have a go and are in a positive learning mood. I knew this, I guess my "theoretical" observer didn't.

So I made my year 7s practise the skill for the rest of the lesson, apparently redundantly. I then set them the same type of question as homework. Do you want to guess how that piece of homework went? That's right, half of the class couldn't remember how to do it.

Now I can already sense a lot of you out there wanting to play devil's avocado on this one: repetition isn't necessarily the best way to embed something in memory. Doing just one question, but focusing heavily on developing understanding and making the experience memorable by including exaggeration, rhythm and movement, colour, order and patterns, laughter etc is more effective. Well yeah, you're right. I have absolutely no comeback for that one. Except: IF YOU'RE SO ****ING GOOD YOU COME AND TEACH THEM.

This week I've been thinking about pointless versus appropriate repetition. It's quite difficult to identify which it is. I'm going to make a special effort to avoid repetition and focus on deriving maximum understanding and memorability from one question.

What do you think? Should kids be going through a page of 10Ticks every lesson or is once enough for understanding to embed?

I'll leave you with the words of one of my professors from uni: "Practise, practise, practise: maths is not a spectator sport!"

Emma x x x


  1. 'Devil's avocado' Love it, I used that phrase in a lesson once which resulted in a 10 minute discussion on how to make Guacamole, my kids are very special in their own way.

  2. ...but back to maths, I fully agree with you on the practise front.

  3. I think I first heard the expression in my second year at uni, from a certain teacher, initials R, W and P. :)

  4. Brilliant post, I knew a teacher once and thats all he ever did with the kids, he would demonstrate at the front for 10 mins and the kids would work through pages of repeating questions with different values. very boring for the kids but he would always get the best results in the department. so there is a lot to be said for it.

  5. Thanks Justin. That is certainly the way I was taught, and I actually liked doing something repetitive - it meant that by the end of the lesson I had a lot of confidence in that area. But I have to keep reminding myself that what worked for me and my friends won't necessarily be what's best.

  6. Very interesting post. To my mind practise is very important even if you think you know everything. Without practise your knowledge is useless.

  7. This post is great! I agree with you that we must practise a lot to be a success.Thank you for sharing this information with us!

  8. The more I teach , the more I appreciate that practise, practise and more practise is the way to go. Skills must be so firmly entrenched in student minds that they can do the associated problems in their sleep! Also engenders confidence - the best antidote to the dreaded exam nerves.