Practice!

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by Maureen Dagg

I tutor students in high school mathematics.

Recently, a new student came to me, and I did my usual things for new students:  I asked him what he was having difficulty with, and generally how he felt about math.  I showed him the textbook (which he’d had to get, since their class wasn’t using one) and how it can be used to help with his questions.  I looked over his notes and handouts from the teacher (there were very few of these).  And then I focused on the topic currently being covered in class.

As I explained things, the student seemed very keen.  He answered all of my queries with “Yes! I get it!” and seemed to understand it all quite well.  Now, I didn’t put him on the spot and make him answer questions, because whenever I do this, kids get a look of panic in their eyes, and I understand how intimidating it can be to be asked a technical question when you are not feeling confident.  So, for the first session at least, I don’t make students do work in front of me.   I do, however, explain the importance of going home and immediately trying a few questions to be sure that they understand what we went over.

The student said he’d be sure to do this.

The next time I saw him, it was evident that he hadn’t practiced anything we’d talked about.  We did several questions together, but I could tell that he was still really uncomfortable if I asked him to answer a question – if I “put him on the spot”, so to speak.

After this session, he went home and practiced – and realized he definitely had issues.  In fact, he couldn’t do a single question from his homework, and was quite upset.  So, the third time he came, he had very specific questions about what he didn’t get!  Of course, this was due to the fact that he’d actually tried to do the work … which requires thought and effort. This tutoring session was the most helpful to him, because now he was perfectly focused on what he needed to learn to get through. We did several questions together, and he did several on his own.  Needless to say, he’s now practicing his math skills through homework, with support from home and from tutoring. It was a big lesson for him.

Some people reading this are likely thinking “Well of course!  How on earth is he supposed to learn the material if he doesn’t practice?”

There are two points I’d like to make:

First, without practice, any person studying subjects requiring skill will quickly fall behind.  So, parents need to pay attention when kids have NO homework from subjects requiring skill such as Mathematics. Second, most students need to have the importance of practice pointed out to them, because much of what they learn in school doesn’t require practice at all; and teachers sometimes fail to expect students to practice.

It’s easy for people to understand the value of practice when I point certain things out to them.  How does one become good at playing guitar? Dancing? Martial arts?  Sports? Painting?  How does one become good at ANY skill?  Through practice, of course.  Essential skills are at the foundation of any endeavor!  Solid skills allow us to go into new creative realms, because we have the tools to boldly go in new directions, and our minds are free from struggling with basics, able to focus on those new ideas.

The idea of practice making one better at skill-based activities is obvious to anyone who has these skills.  Amazingly, there seems to be less and less emphasis on practicing skills in our school system.  While I’m very enthusiastic about the focus on students learning problem-solving techniques, I’m concerned about letting essential skills – and the practice required to develop them – fall by the wayside as if they aren’t critical to success.  They are the very foundation of success. Particularly when a student goes from the elementary system to the secondary one, the essentials of developing skills through practice must be made clear.  I have noticed often that students who play a musical instrument, or who are skilled athletes readily understand the value of practice.  And, interestingly, those students developed that understanding from activities done outside of our school system rather than from it!

Imagine studying a musical instrument, such as guitar.  You go to your lesson, and the teacher gives you several new chords and a new piece of music to work on. You watch the teacher as he demonstrates the chords, and you listen to the piece of music.  You understand.  The next week, you go back, having NOT practiced these new skills, and the teacher continues.  Or worse, you put down your guitar for several months, and then pick it up to continue where you “left off”. How are you going to become skillful at playing guitar?  As any guitar playing wizard in our community knows, countless hours have been spent to acquire a certain skill level!

Math, unlike some other subjects, is a cumulative subject built on skills.  As you go through school, you are expected to add tools (skills) to your toolbox so that you can deal with more and more complex problems.  Imagine having a bunch of tools that you either don’t know how to use, or, worse, you can’t even remember what they are to begin with.  This is exactly what happens when students are not given math homework, or simply don’t bother to do homework they are given.  While they may remember having seen the skill way back, they can’t recall it and use it when needed – because they never had enough practice to begin with.  How can a teacher add onto this lack of knowledge unless she reteaches all of the skills behind today’s lesson?  Should a high school teacher be re-explaining fractions to a grade 10 student?

Parents, your students in high school academic level courses should have math homework every night – unless they’ve had a test in class that day.  And they need time to do this homework, so you might have to prioritize for them when things like extra-curricular activities and part-time jobs get in the way.  Sometimes, they can “save up” homework for a few days and do it all on the weekend.  But it does need to get done for that essential practice to occur.

Math-related careers are those that require a certain type of logical thinking, for which high school mathematics is excellent training.  There are many interesting and challenging careers that require this.  But perhaps your teen isn’t going to go into one of these fields.  There are countless excellent careers and jobs that don’t require math-related thinking at all.  If this is the case, please don’t expect high achievement from your teen in this complex, cumulative subject if he is not practicing to learn the skills.  And PLEASE – expect homework from teachers!  And notes!  And a textbook!

Practice!