Practice Makes Perfect

As I have got older, I have begun to appreciate how true the old adage, ‘Mother knows best’ really is. Whilst my own children may have failed to grasp the wisdom of this saying, over the years I have learnt to swallow my pride and listen to (if not always follow) my mother’s advice.

Growing up, one of my mother’s favourite phrases was ‘practice makes perfect’. It would appear that on this one, mother really did know best. As she often used to tell me, ‘there is no shortcut to success’ and, as recent research has shown, it would appear that practice is an essential part of this.

Over the holidays, I have been reading the excellent book ‘Bounce’ by Matthew Syed. In this, he claims that ten thousand hours of practice is the difference between average and expert performance. He argues against the idea of people having an innate talent and instead insists ‘it is practice, not talent, that holds the key to success.’ Before we all start making our children practise for 10,000 hours, it is important to think carefully about what we mean by this. Having passed my driving test at the age of 17, there is no doubt that I have clocked up over 10,000 hours or more of driving practice so far. However, as my husband and children will testify, this has certainly not made me an expert driver. The reason for this is that it has not been ‘purposeful’. Purposeful practice involves practising at the right level so that we are sufficiently challenged (outside of our comfort zone) but not so difficult that we just give up. I like to call it the Goldilocks’ principle – not too much, or too little, just right!

Another key feature of purposeful practice is feedback. Effective feedback enables you to identify what you are doing well, as well as highlighting how you could improve further. Think of the analogy of going to a driving range and hitting 100 balls. Whilst this may help to improve your technique slightly, it will never be as productive as having a more experienced coach next to you giving you detailed and targeted feedback after each stroke.

This year, at Castle Court, we have implemented a new feedback policy. At the heart of this policy is the principle that in order for marking to be effective, pupils need time to act on the feedback given and practise the skills they need to improve further. We have therefore introduced ‘purple pens of progress’ which pupils use to make corrections and improvements to their work based on the feedback provided. In this way, we hope to model that mistakes are an essential part of the learning process and by listening to the feedback of others you can develop further and achieve success. As the saying goes ‘if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again’. Yes, you’ve guessed it, another one of my Mother’s sayings – she really does know best!

The Power of Yet

The cry of ‘I can’t do it’ is regularly heard in every school and in every household across the land. If we are honest, we can’t even blame this entirely on the children. How many times do we use this phrase when we encounter something we find difficult or as an excuse to avoid something we know we’ll find challenging? Changing a tyre is a prime example in my house. Now of course I am capable of doing this myself, but the truth is I’ve never tried. It always seems so dirty and difficult. It is so much easier to watch my husband do it and give encouraging instructions from the sidelines! However, by doing so I am missing the point. When you find things difficult, when you’re faced with a new challenge, something you can’t do – this is where learning starts. Failure is an essential part of the learning process. It is only through grappling with these challenges, learning from our failures and being prepared to try again that we can make progress and learn new skills.

The trouble is too often our children see people being successful and think that this talent comes naturally – that you’re either artistic or not; a talented sports person or not. We don’t talk to them about the hours of practice they have gone through, the sacrifices they have made, the failures they have encountered, the resilience and determination they have shown in not giving up. These are the things that have made them successful – the success itself is just the tip of the iceberg.

At Castle Court we are determined to banish the phrase ‘I can’t’ from our classrooms. Not, as you might expect, by stopping pupils saying it, but by just asking them to add one simple word – yet. By adding this simple word it changes a person’s mindset. My struggle is only temporary, with hard work and determination I will be able to do it; I just can’t do it yet.

So next time you hear your child declare ‘I can’t do it’ remind them of the power of ‘yet’. As for me, I’m not a master tyre changer yet but I’m working on it – I’ll keep you posted!