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Practice vs. Planning: What's the Most Effective Way to Learn?

Practice vs. Planning: What's the Most Effective Way to Learn?

Give your students the opportunities to both learn and do in the classroom.

I recently read a Quora post on learning that recounted a story about the issue of practice vs. planning. In the story, a pottery teacher splits her class into two groups: planners and "practicers." For one semester, the planners study pottery, and plan, design, and create the perfect pot. The other half of the class is tasked with making lots of pots—their grade actually depends on the number of pots they create. At the end of the semester, both groups enter their best pot into a competition. What were the findings? The practicers ended up making the better pots. The lesson learned is one we've heard for years: if you want to become accomplished at something, you need a great deal of practice.

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The Drawbacks of Perfection

When I took advanced composition in high school, we spent an entire semester working on a single essay. We planned and plotted; we drafted and revised. About halfway through the class, I started losing interest in my essay. It had grown stale, and I was no longer excited about it. While it was flawlessly written by the time I handed it in, it lacked freshness. The next time I needed to write an essay for a class, I didn't draw on my advanced composition experience, and I'm not sure I learned much beyond the value of proofreading. In addition, students in the class who didn't do well on this one assignment failed the class. There was no room for improvement or growth.

Try and Try Again

In my own classroom, I figured out early on that if I wanted my students to become strong readers and writers, they were going to have to do a lot of reading and writing. Last year, my sophomores read six more books than what was required on the sophomore reading list. And we wrote constantly. I wanted to give my students plenty of opportunities to learn from their mistakes and grow. Don't get me wrong—we still planned and organized before writing or reading a new book. But it didn't take the enormous amount of time it did when I was in school.

Further Reading: 4 Curriculum Organizers to Use

I also kept portfolios of all my students' work in the classroom. Each time I returned an assignment, I asked them to review their portfolio. Were they repeating mistakes? Was their writing progressing? With concrete evidence in front of them, my students' writing began to improve.

Proof in the Pudding

When the state scores came out, my students had the highest growth percentile in the school: 77 percent. Some of my students personally improved 91 and 93 percent. The class was a college prep class (my school has three levels: advanced placement, honors, and college prep), yet more than half the class scored at the advanced level on this test. And there were other factors that I noticed. Students were more engaged, homework was always completed, and students were excited about learning. They didn't sweat it out over one bad grade because they knew they'd have plenty of opportunities to improve. It was clear to me that the repeated practice helped my students become more skilled and confident in their work.

One caveat: Practice does not just mean drill and kill. Your students will lose interest if you don't create assignments or choose reading material that engages them. That's one of the reasons I created an entire curriculum on The Walking Dead. Students actually enjoy writing about their favorite TV show. They often write way more than the required number of pages, and they frequently turn in work early. I try to replicate this with my sophomore class by picking books that I knew were teen favorites—like Speak, Tears of a Tiger, Fences, and Recovery Road—and constructing writing prompts that were interesting and compelling. The practice you give your students should be designed to be both engaging and effective.

Further reading: Choose Your Best Option for Lesson Planning

The debate between practice vs. planning is sure to continue. Finding the correct balance in your classroom will be the key to success. But you won't be disappointed with the outcomes if you ensure your students put in a great deal of practice.