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Leadership Likes: Dr Purvis

The Importance of Practice

In a society where time has become scarce, people are no longer willing to wait for anything. Today, retailers have no choice but to adapt to the new cultural need for immediacy. And so, they have developed new solutions such as same-day delivery, real-time updates, no shipping delays, and one-click information access, among others.

The urge to share, the desire to get anything anywhere at any time and the instinct to instantly find information are consumer shifts that mobile devices have clearly intensified. Texting, multimedia messaging, and mobile web browsers have dramatically whetted the collective appetite for getting what we want when we want it– and when we want it is now. The culture of the ‘everywhere-anytime’ access to the internet offers ever more opportunities for consumers to get what they desire simply, rapidly, and seamlessly.

Against this backdrop, popular culture tells us that often success (of sorts) can be instantaneous, though, of course, we do not often see all the things that have led up to a particular person achieving success in their chosen field. We are not shown the practice, the preparation, the practical and psychological support that a person gets, and the personal drive to succeed and get better. Instead, we are presented with a packaged and often rather anesthetised version of success, which people often seek to replicate by skipping the unseen factors that led to it. What we are seeing is only the tip of the metaphorical iceberg.

I write my latest Leadership Likes blog just as the school embarks on its annual round of internal examinations. While the results of these examinations provide an important indicator of learning over the course of the academic year, they also serve a much more prosaic function: they provide a crucial opportunity for pupils to practise revising for and taking assessments. Crucially, success in GCSE and A levels stands on the shoulders of such internal formal and informal assessments, which provide a chance to practise revision and recall and apply knowledge and skills to unfamiliar situations under pressure. We should not overlook the rich opportunity to practise provided by assessments, and yet so often, we do so as we focus on the outcome rather than the process.

But what is this mystical art of practice? Practice, in the broadest sense of the term, is simply an activity that you repeat regularly. Sometimes we repeat activities consciously, e.g. ‘I practise swimming five times a week.’ But one might practise some activities unconsciously: is eating a conscious practice? Walking? Cooking? What about sleeping?

We are practising all the time, whether we know it or not. That is why practice is so important. Even when we are not actively engaged in an activity, our brain is still absorbing, processing and, ultimately, learning. Just think about those times you took a few days off from something and suddenly got better. We are always learning, even in our downtime. So, we might as well make the most of our time and practise effectively when we can do so.

Practice is also concerned with ‘the absorption, mastery and maintenance of skills.’ This is how most people think about practice. There is an element of improvement. How quickly we can improve and what direction the improvements take us is the essential question for anyone who does something regularly, especially where the potential stakes are high, as is the case for public examinations.

Focusing on what we want to learn and improve upon is the best way to practise effectively. Imagine if you are jumping around from random skill to random skill – think of how much longer it will take you to master each item. It is certainly good to mix it up and even take breaks. But there comes a point where practice can become too scattered to be beneficial. That is why schools provide an opportunity to practise taking assessments regularly.

At this juncture, it is important to note that while education is so much more than assessment, assessment acts as a gatekeeper to educational progress, and every school wants to make pupils find it as easy as possible to open the metaphorical gate to whatever future they want.

The upcoming internal assessments should be configured as a means to an end, a method of preparation through practice, rather than an end in itself. Alongside class-based assessment opportunities, these internal assessments form part of a long process of trying out and tweaking study and revision habits and of building a level of resilience which can be put to good use when the public examinations come closer into view. Importantly, then, we should all encourage pupils to try to keep a sense of perspective as they finalise their examination preparations. As they do so, remind them that practice does not always make you perfect, but it definitely makes you better.

Dr Purvis

Deputy Head (Academic)

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