We are all familiar with the term “drill and kill”, yet we also know that practice makes perfect.
“It is virtually impossible to become proficient at a mental task without extended practice” Willingham
If we must practice to become proficient, how do we keep that practice from killing our children’s love of learning? Often, when we are practicing we are not solving a problem and will have no natural rewards firing off in our brain. First, let’s remind ourselves why the brain needs practice, and then think about how to make that practice non-torturesome.
(You are reading the fifth post in a series about cognitive science in your homeschool, click here for the introductory post and links to the other posts in this series.)
There are three main reasons to practice skills. This is true of any subject, whether we are talking about math facts, kicking a ball, or reading.
The first reason is to become competent in a skill. The first reason we practice reading is so that we can read.
The second reason is to become better at it. A ninth-grader can read much better than a first-grader, as long as they have been practicing. They are an expert reader compared to the first-grader who is still using working memory to decode words. For the ninth-grader reading has become automatic and they rarely have to stop to sound out a new word.
The third reason is not as obvious as the first two. At this point, would it be okay for the ninth grader to stop reading? It may not seem like his reding skills are improving daily. He is proficent, so why keep going? The answer is to improve cognitive function within the area of practice. Continuing to practice beyond proficeincy helps in three ways.
1) Mental processes become automatic, this frees up working memory for further learning
2) Memory is retained long-term when we continue to use skills
3) Helps learning transfer to new situations
In Your Homeschool
Choose what you practice. Not everything needs to be practiced to the point of automaticity. The building blocks are what need to be automatic. Building blocks are the things that are used over and over again in a subject, those things that are required for more advanced work. Some examples of building blocks are knowing letter sounds, math facts, and scales. Choosing on purpose which things we are going to practice beyond proficiency will help create the space and fortitude to practice the building blocks past mastery.
Practice is better spread out over time, rather than clumped together, (this is why when we cram for a test we forget much faster than if we have been studying the material consistently). It is better to practice a skill 10 minutes a day than 60 minutes once a week. However, we also have to space practice out even further. This is why reviews are so helpful. The child cannot predict the answer based off the pattern of question they have been working on recently. They have to reach back in their memory, to all the types of problems they have practiced and figure out which one fits the problem. This periodic reaching helps boost the memory and keep it in the brains storage system. So don’t despair if a child has reached competency and you just don’t have time to practice every day, throw something in once a week, or even once a month, to keep skills and memories sharp.
Don’t be afraid to keep moving forward while practicing. Moving into more advanced skills can hold the interest and attention while the student continues to practice the basics. We see this clearly in math, and it is folded into the subject matter for us. The child continues to work basic addition facts to solve all kinds of more complex problems. It would be helpful to aim for this kind of natural folding in of the basics while continuing on into more advanced skills across all subjects.
Because automaticity requires so much practice we need to be both patient and creative. Come up with as many fun and creative ways as you can to practice the basic skills. Then relax, knowing that as you move into more advanced skills, you will still be using the basics.
So, does practice make your kid perfect? Well, no one is perfect, but it will make them competent, and as they continue to practice their skills will become automatic, making more room in their working memory, and they will be able to use that space to solve more complex problems. So I would say it is safe to say practice makes your kid smarter.
This is just a short explanation of the concepts covered by Willingham. There is so much more in his book, and I strongly recommend reading it. One thing Willingham does in his book is take you through many more examples, persuading you as he introduces each idea. If I had a top ten books home educators should read, this would be on it.