As a not particularly sporty individual, it took me longer to learn how to play tennis than it did some of the others on the course I attended back in the early 1990s. Time and again, I couldn’t get the serve right. I knew the techniques and was trying to follow them. I asked the coach for guidance and he smiled. “You’ll get there, Fish, you just need more practice”
“But everyone else seems to be getting it” was my response.
“Probably because they’ve done racquet sports before and you haven’t. Just keep at it.”
He was right. I’ll never be a tennis star, but after practising evening after evening, I did eventually “get it”
The reason I am sharing this anecdote is because we are now encouraged to think that improvements in learning can always be thought of in terms of “what they are currently doing wrong” and “next steps.” At a recent parents evening, I was asked the depressingly common question “So what does she need to do to improve?” In this case it was the student’s translation skills which were letting her down.
The honest answer was “She simply needs more practice and she will be getting that over the next few months” and it was the answer I initially gave. Yet I could see that this did not satisfy the parent. “But where exactly is she falling down – what extra things does she need to do?” was the slightly puzzled response to my first answer. I then mumbled something about identifying different tenses, which was noted down with satisfaction. I had identified something concrete. “More practice” wasn’t really seen as OK.
Yet the student concerned could identify tenses when doing specific grammar exercises on tenses. What she and indeed all the other students needed was practice at identifying tenses in the middle of a prose passage which contained numerous other grammar points. Nor was it just the tenses which needed to be identified, but relative clauses, passives, conditionals, adjective endings, the lot. Nearly all my students could identify and use these grammar points in specific grammar exercises. We were now beginning to look at putting all that knowledge together. This does not come immediately. It takes time, which is why I have always done translation with my classes, even when it was completely unfashionable. I have never bought the argument which says if a language teacher practises translation with students, then they are addicted to the “grammar- translation method” and obviously never use the target language or engage in communicative tasks. I have always done both.
I gather Dylan Wiliam’s idea of “Assessment for Learning” took the analogy of Japanese car makers and noted how “quality assurance” took place at all stages and not simply at the end. This was then applied in education. I do not dismiss the importance of students knowing what they need to do to improve, but it does not take into account the need for practice. A carmaker who has inserted a widget the wrong way simply needs their error pointing out. In education, I have no problem with students having their mistakes pointed out – indeed, it is necessary for improvement. Nevertheless, education is not really the same as building a car. Sometimes the answer to the question “What do they need to do to improve?” is simply “More practice, which they will get throughout the course, so they don’t really need to do anything extra”. Yet a whole generation of parents, teachers and pupils are now so conditioned by the idea of trying to analyse exactly what a student is doing wrong, that the idea of simply needing practice has become anathema. Moreover the practice needed will come over a series of lessons – a lot of the time a student does not need to do anything “extra” other than attend lessons regularly, where they will get all the practice they need.
Practice makes perfect. A hackneyed phrase, but it can be forgotten in an education climate of targets, WWW and EBI….