Practice makes perfect, the popular saying goes. But can hours on the football field transform a student with two left feet into the next Pelé? Or must we accept that people are restricted by their natural attributes?
Author and childhood development expert Ellen Booth Church says young children naturally practice when developing skills. For example, two-year-olds who want to repeatedly read the same bedtime story might infuriate their parents, but this repetition improves their reading skills and adds to their understanding of the subject each time.
“Children naturally repeat activities where they understand what is home base – what feels comfortable – and then seeing how far they can venture out next time,” she says.
The 10,000-hour principle
In his book, Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell popularized the idea that at least 10,000 hours of practice is needed for somebody to master a certain skill. His idea is loosely based on Dr K Anders Ericsson’s research. In a 1993 study, The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance, Ericsson and his team discovered that the highest performing violin students averaged 10,000 hours practice between them.
“Superior reproducible performances don’t emerge without some prior practice,” says Ericsson.
However, Ericsson’s original study only counted deliberate practice towards total hours practiced. In short, this is practice where students consciously work to improve a weakness, often with the help of an experienced teacher and with immediate feedback available.
Booth Church agrees specific feedback can be powerful. “Praising a child is important but don’t say: ‘You did a great job!’” she says. “Instead, be specific with what you notice. Say, “Wow! I noticed this time when we played the game, you did this. I liked the way you did that.”’
But recent research suggests we might be overvaluing practice. While Dr Brooke Macnamara and her team discovered that practice was still critical for improving performance in their study: Deliberate Practice and Performance in Music, Games, Sports, Education, and Professions, it was not responsible for people mastering skills in most cases.
“Various other differences can account for mastering a skill,” explains Macnamara, now an assistant professor at Case Western Reserve University. “These can be unique to the individual, such as personality, motivation levels, what people are motivated by and cognitive abilities.”
Macnamara warns that the value we place on practice means we could assume poor performance is the result of not trying hard enough. “We need to stop scolding people for performing poorly and saying, ‘Well, you must not have practiced,’” she says. Instead, she advises teachers to consider the other factors, such as lack of confidence, which could have affected the performance.
Some students may shun practicing, and a fear of failing might be to blame.
“Practice involves pushing your bounds,” explains Ericsson. “Most people dread making mistakes, but, if you’re going to improve, you must select tasks you struggle with. If you only select activities you can easily do, your performance will stay the same”
Practicing too hard is also a danger. Ericsson explains that deliberate practice involves intense concentration and effort, which can’t be maintained for a long time. He suggests limiting deliberate practice to 15- to 20-minute sessions, then moving on to another activity which is more relaxed and fun to prevent the student from becoming fatigued.
While eventual performance depends on many factors, practice is not only important but vital to improving skills. Practice may not be able to turn a student into a world-class basketball player or star mathematician, but it will help them to become the best they can be.
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