Tag Archives: deliberate practice

The Practice Gap: Quantity

At its core, the achievement gap is just a practice gap. Children from a more advantaged socio-economic backgrounds have a greater quantity of academic practice, and its effect is compounded by the higher quality of this practice.
We know that, on average, children from wealthier backgrounds spend longer engaged in academic pursuits than their less wealthy peers. We also know that the growth of knowledge is exponential. Once a gap has emerged it will grow, even if experiences after that point are identical. This means that even a small practice gap will grow into a big achievement gap.
The first step to closing the practice gap is to close the gap in quantity of practice. This blog is about the role of lessons in closing that gap. Its aim is to provide general principles that increase the quantity of practice time within a lesson. 
1) Every second counts
The cumulative effect of wasted minutes is tremendously destructive. Consider a student who arrives two minutes late to the start of each lesson. They take two minutes to begin working, and manage to waste another two minutes ‘packing away’ at the end. Ignoring any other down time during a lesson, this student would lose the equivalent of 19 school days each year – practically a term’s worth of learning. Every second counts.
The classroom that closes the practice gap eliminates lost minutes. It considers as late a student who is late to begin working, because being on time is about more than arriving at the classroom door. Transitions are tight, and every logistical operation is rehearsed to military efficiency. Teacher instructions are precise and concise, with non-verbal cues being used wherever possible. Accepting wasted seconds is accepting a practice gap.
2) Scarcity motivates
Give a student an hour to complete a task, and you can be damn well sure they’ll take an hour. They’ll crawl along with heroic inefficiency, working with the enthusiasm of a sloth on sedatives. Give the same student the same task with a finite, even daringly short time limit, and they’ll swing into action. A student’s mood should not determine the pace of their work. You should.
Every task given without a time limit is giving a blank cheque from the account of your most precious resource. The scarcity of limited time forces students to work efficiently and push themselves to achieve before their opportunity has passed. I like to generate scarcity by having a timer on display throughout my lessons, constantly counting down the seconds until the task must be completed. I also find that round numbers of time have far less effect than unusually specific ones. Five minutes is shorthand for “a little while”. Six minutes is a reasoned and deliberate limit. The teacher who’s calculated a specific maximum time is the teacher who won’t waste a second.
3) Speed matters
It is not good enough to just be able to perform a task. Students have to be able to perform it quickly, and without occupying too much of their working memory. Barry Smith taught me to call this “overlearning”, and it has changed the way I teach. A student has learned a skill or fact well enough when performing or recalling it exerts sufficiently small demands on their working memory that they are able to study something else at the same time. Otherwise, why bother? Students will never be able to operate in an unknown situation, or draw links across topics and subjects. They have to be able to do the thing you’ve been teaching them, and learn something new.
A great measure for this is speed. Directly measuring whether an operation has entered a student’s ‘muscle memory’, or its cognitive equivalent, is a tough problem. Monitoring their speed can be an effective proxy. Better still, speed is easily measured by students and can give them a tangible number with which to prove the progress they make. This motivating effect spurs them on to practise more and achieve even lower times.
That said, speed should be used with caution. It is not appropriate for all skills, and is a poor measure for non-routine or creative tasks. It is also risky because speed is easily ranked, and can turn practice into a competition against each other rather than against the clock. When well managed, however, speed is an excellent way of increasing the quantity of practice for routine skills that need embedding in long term memory.
4) Target mastery
It doesn’t matter what students have done, it matters what they’ll be able to do next. Students are too used to seeing a task as the end in itself. They complete 20 questions for homework because their homework is 20 questions. The practice required is limited and invariant. The job is done when the questions are done. 
Learning needs to shift from the past into the future tense. The goal of learning is to be able to face a future challenge, not to have completed a past one. By changing the objective of your class to focus on what students have to master, their quantity of practice will increase. Their motivation changes, so they are thinking about the skills they have mastered rather than whether they have hit their quota of questions. They are more likely to enter a state of flow, and to practise for the right amount of time. Tweaking your classroom to expect and reward mastery rather than task completion can revolutionize your students’ attitudes and significantly increase the quantity of their practice.
The gap in quantity of practice is a big one. It starts early – there is a 22% gap between 3 year olds who watch more than 3 hours of TV a day. It is fed into by a wide range of influences, many beyond the class teacher’s control. But by placing these philosophies at the heart of your classroom, you can make a significant impact in closing the practice gap for your students.

The Practice Gap

“If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat.”
Sun Tzu, The Art of War
The persistence of the achievement gap is in part down to its mysterious nature. Teachers, new and old, battle their way through classrooms trying to defeat this enemy, doing everything they can to close the gap. But do we really know what we’re fighting? We can all give reasons why the achievement gap exists – hearing more words when growing up, fewer adverse experiences, more opportunities, greater intellectual stimulation from parents, better surroundings for working, etc, etc, etc. Lists like these give us a sense of the scale and variety of the problem. However they do little to help us solve it. They’re too big, full of too many vaguely related things, and far too complex for an individual teacher to use to build a strategy.

It’s time for a bit of synthesis. We need to boil the problem down into one simple idea; one that is straightforward enough to apply in every classroom, yet powerful enough to close a tremendously persistent gap.

I would argue that the achievement gap is little more than a practice gap.

In recent years our understanding of what it takes to be successful has come a long way, and numerous pieces of research* point to one single defining cause of success – deliberate practice. We know that natural talent, whatever that may be, is a fairly insignificant factor in success. What matters more is the volume and quality of practice in a field. From Tiger Woods to Mozart, the world’s most prodigious talents are actually the world’s most committed practicers.

All of the influences listed at the start of this post, the influences often blamed for the achievement gap, are in some way influences on practice. They shape either its quantity or its quality. Rather than trying to tackle each of these separately and being overwhelmed by the scale of the problem, teachers should be empowered by seeing the problem for what it is – a practice gap. Children from lower socio-economic backgrounds get worse academic results than their wealthier peers because they have less deliberate practice.

Defining the problem in these terms gives teachers a new challenge:

How do I maximize the quantity and quality of practice my students get in my subject?

Doing so has three major advantages:

A clear problem is easier to solve.Looking separately at all of the different aspects of a problem is confusing and overwhelming. Looking straight to its heart is empowering. Teachers closing an achievement gap have to undo a host of past problems and effects. Teachers closing a practice gap have to maximize deliberate practice.

Two criteria to judge solutions. Every idea, new or old, is judged by asking two questions. How much does this increase the quantity of practice? How much does this increase the quality of practice? If there’s not a resoundingly positive answer to one of these questions, it’s not closing the gap.

It unites teachers around a common problem. When the problem is unclear teachers all see it differently, and use different criteria to judge solutions. Sharing a common understanding of the problem makes conversation more productive, improves the quality of ideas, and aligns teachers towards one specific aim.

I’m going to write two follow-up posts about the practice gap – one on quantity and one on quality. The aim is to provoke some thought about priorities for the classroom, and to guide myself into next year with some specific targets.

The nation is faced with a huge gap. It is a gap into which millions have fallen, and will fall, unless we are able to close it. It is why the UK has some of the worst social mobility in the world, and why your parents wealth is such a powerful predictor of your educational success. It can be represented in many ways, and seen through many lenses, but at its heart, it is just a practice gap.

*Some great books in this genre include Practice Perfect by Doug Lemov, Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin, and Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. Dweck’s work on mindset is also pretty influential.