Practice, practice, practice…

#15MinForum – 9/02/17

Does practice make perfect, or does it make permanent? How can routines help make the permanent perfect? This was the tongue-twister that Ian O’Brien, Deputy Headteacher and Physics teacher, shared to whet peoples appetite when advertising our latest 15 Minute Forum.

Setting up the routines for success.

As part of his work in his Learning Community, inspired by Doug Lemov (@Doug_Lemov) et al’s bestselling ‘Practice Perfect‘, Ian has been working to look at whether we can set up routines to help learning or to approach problem solving in a manner that we can fall back on in stressful situations, and whether practice can ‘program’ our responses to these situations…

Using Owen Farrell, England’s ever-dependable goal kicker, as an example, Ian highlighted that it doesn’t matter where he is on the field or who the opposition are, the routine is the same. He can be out on the far right touch-line (the harder side to kick for a right-footer to kick for goal), he can be directly in front of the posts, he can be playing for top-of-the-table saracens against minnows from the depths of the table, or he can be playing for his country in a high-stakes international. Regardless of the specifics of the situation, the routine takes the same length of time and follows the exact same steps. And it is remarkably reliable…

 

So the question Ian posed at the start of the forum was ‘what do you want the students to be able to do. Find one thing. How do you then drill it so that it is second nature? How can you programme the student response?’

Drill, drill, drill.

In Ian’s own case, the starting point was looking at the way that his physics students, at all levels of the school, lay out their equations. A methodical and highly structured approach has always been something that the physics team has encouraged, and for many students it sticks. But there are also many students who continue to do it their own way, missing out steps, taking shortcuts, not laying things out carefully. And these students make more mistakes and find it harder to self-diagnose their own mistakes.

So Ian set about really focussing on embedding the perfect routine: list out the data provided including the units of measurement, then check the units, then select and write out the required equation, then write it out again and plug the known values in, then rearrange the equation, then finally do the calculation. Each of these is a separate step, each step is written out carefully (with the equals-signs all lining up) and it is spaced out. No shortcuts, even on the easy questions. Like Owen Farrell’s pre-kick routine, the idea is that the routine never changes regardless of how easy or hard the question may be.

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For weeks (and now months), this has been hammered home every lesson. It is modelled every lesson. Students peer- and self-assess – not to check whether they got the right answer, but to check whether the work has followed the perfect structure. Mark-schemes have been adjusted to reward the use of the perfect structure rather than just the correct answer – the real exams won’t do this, but it reinforces the programming/routines during this stage of the learning.

Reaping the rewards.

Ultimately, students are making fewer mistakes. Those teaching groups with whom Ian has focussed his efforts at this stage are excelling with calculation work, even where some of the students in those groups are not natural mathematicians or whose prior attainment is generally towards the lower end. Whats-more, where they do make errors, students are able to much more quickly and independently identify the problem and fix it.

So where else might this work? Anything where there is a sequence or format or routine that needs to be deployed consistently! Approaches to structuring a paragraph/ essay (be it PEE, or PETER or whatever the latest mnemonic for writing arguments is), perhaps. The steps students need to go through when setting about constructing a graph, perhaps. The routines students are encouraged to adopt when writing out responses in long-answer questions, perhaps…

 

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