In praise of practice

Education is a bit like parenting. In the same way that we cannot mould our children in our preferred image, educators cannot really control what people learn. We can do our best to guide them, to motivate them and to help them understand concepts and acquire skills, but we cannot make people learn. Since most of a student’s time is spent away from the lecture theatre or laboratory, one of our primary goals should be to maximise the likelihood of his/her using this ‘away’ time wisely and effectively.

‘Study’ seems to be an old fashioned word these days. It has been replaced by, and dressed up as, ‘independent learning’ or ‘self-directed learning’; but these are just words for studying. For me, this is where the real problems with education arise. It seems that students don’t study enough and, perhaps more importantly, they don’t study effectively. In the preface to my upcoming book, I give the following quote from the late golfer Seve Ballesteros: “To give yourself the best possible chance of playing to your potential, you must prepare for every eventuality. That means practice.” Learning is just like sport, you have to practice a lot and you have to practice intelligently.

There is a famous study reported in the psychology literature in which researchers analysed the practice habits of young violinists. They wanted to see how the habits of the budding superstars differed from those of the likely journeymen. A key idea that emerges from the study is the idea of ‘deliberate practice’. This is often the boring stuff. For the violinist, it involved lots of drills to improve technique, done over regular, relatively short, periods of intense concentration.

Unfortunately, education theorists have tended to go in the opposite direction. Project Maths is a case in point. The idea that one can learn mathematics by plunging into what is essentially mathematical modelling before becoming fluent in basic mathematical technique is nonsense; a bit like a novice violinist being encouraged to attempt some horrendously difficult violin concerto. It’s the old cliché of trying to run before you can walk.

Recently, I have been reading a book about Grigori Perelman, an ‘eccentric’ Russian mathematician who tends to be labelled as ‘suffering’ from Asperger Syndrome and who solved one of the Millennium Problems. He didn’t claim the one million dollar prize for doing so! The book gives some insight into how mathematicians were trained in the former Soviet Union. As I was reading the book I recalled Martin Sheen’s line in a famous scene from Apocalyse Now, where Marlon Brando asks if Sheen approves of his (Brando’s) ‘methods’. Sheen replies “I don’t see any method at all”. And, there was no real ‘method’ in the Soviet system. Teaching maths in the Soviet Union involved handing out lots of problems that the students ploughed through for hours on end. Of course, these were highly talented, well motivated students, but the basic approach is valid for students of all abilities, at least in my view. Students have to practice. This could involve doing lots of problems in basic algebra, writing paragraphs of English on any given topic, routinely speaking a foreign language with friends, regularly writing computer code, regularly reading quality English literature, debating philosophy over coffee etc. Whatever the subject, it will only be mastered with deliberate practice.

It seems to me that we have two problems in education. The first is the already difficult task of motivating the students and convincing them that success requires deliberate practice, even if it is sometimes relatively boring. Sports people have no problem accepting this. The second is to stem the flow of ill-conceived, un-validated ideas from the educational theorists.


About Greg Foley

A lecturer in Biotechnology in Dublin City University for more than 25 years. Trained as a Chemical Engineer in UCD (BE and PhD) and Cornell (MS). Does research on analysis and design of membrane filtration systems.
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One Response to In praise of practice

  1. Pingback: Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » In praise of practice

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