Why Would Students Want to Practice?

“Now, in the small group character representations, group 925. Give it up for Working 9 to 5!”

This was the moment we were waiting for, our 8-year-old, Eva, had been rehearsing with her group for weeks and today was performance time. Krista, Maggie, and I sat in the front row, anxiously awaiting the routine, while, unsurprisingly, Bobby and Charlie opted to stay home and play monster trucks. The music hit, and out came the girls in their matching outfits. They looked incredible and performed very well. Of course, my eyes watched Eva’s every move, and I was so proud of her as she danced and lip-synched her way through the song. The routine finished with the troupe standing together, smiling brightly and bowing to rousing applause. With pride filling my heart and tears filling my eyes I watched as my little girl marched off stage with her friends.

Ready to perform!

The performance, which started as a choreographer’s idea, had become a reality, and I think about all the preparation that went into making it a success. I think about the first time they heard that music, and the first steps they tried to master as a group. There were countless days of watching Eva practice her actions in the living room as Dolly Parton’s famous song played on the computer. Eventually, Eva learned her entire routine and was ready to go! She shared with me that she was a little nervous about the performance, saying how it will be different in front of a large crowd. We talked about nerves and discussed how it’s just our bodies getting us ready for a stressful moment. We talked about how it’s normal to feel that way.

Practice, practice, practice, performance. This sounds a lot like the work we are doing with our students, and it seems a lot like our assessment practices. After their routines, all the groups that performed were called back on stage, and the adjudicators came out and offered words of wisdom and encouragement as they handed out the awards. Our girls did not win in the overall competition; however, they did perform to what was deemed the ‘Gold Standard’. To my surprise, that isn’t the top award as the best routine went to a large group of teenage performers who were awarded the ‘Supernova’ award. I still do not entirely understand what the judges are watching for, but trust that they have some idea what they are doing.

When I think about the way we assess our students, I’m reminded of practice versus performance. What used to be the common practice of grading everything and then calculating an average has given way to a more accurate measurement of only grading the summative, or performance, task. I wonder what Eva’s mark would have been had her instructor averaged all of her practice into her final grade? I wonder how all of the missed steps, or stumbles along the way would have impacted her mark? Yet we used to do this with our students. I can recall times when teaching where I would take in piles of marking, plug the scores into an Excel sheet, apply a weight to specific tasks, add them all up and average them out. In the end, I thoroughly sterilised the marks, and even worse, I felt I had the professional latitude to adjust the scores to reflect how I felt the student had performed.

With this change comes the challenge. Why would a student feel practice is essential in certain subjects? It’s not that the notion of practice is lost on them, you see it daily when they are on their skateboards, shooting hoops, playing video games, or drawing pictures. They understand the importance of the practice in those situations and are willing to spend hours perfecting their craft. So how do we get them to mimic that passion and commitment in our math classes? In our science classes? In our shop classes? In our ELA classes? I have a few thoughts:

First, it’s not easy! What motivates student A may not motivate student B, and as we know we have classes comprised of students from A to Z! So our first challenge is understanding each student, figuring out what motivates them, and then leveraging that to our advantage (remember, we have the gift of hindsight the students may not yet have).

Second, it’s a long season! There will be struggles along the way, times when students are either reluctant or downright defiant. We need to understand that in this is a message, and I believe it is usually the same: I’d rather look reluctant than unable. I think it is a choice students make to ‘save face’ and one we see so often in the middle years. How do we support those students? How do we create a safe place for them to ask for help and to be vulnerable? How have we done this for each other in our adult learning this year?

Third, it’s about how they learn, not how you teach! This was so difficult for me to wrap my head around. For years I believed it was my job to teach and the students’ job to learn, and if they did not learn the way I taught, they needed to change. In my fifth year of teaching, I was introduced to differentiation by our head of learning in the Cayman Islands. I recall how it made perfect sense to me but scared the heck out of me at the same time.

Finally, it’s possible! I genuinely believe we can get to a place where students are motivated to practice their skills leading up to an evaluated performance. I reflect on the work I got to do with our drama class this year. They were tasked with memorising a 20 to 30-line monologue which they would perform in front of their peers. They were given ample time and were given clear criteria for how they would be evaluated. They understood that for two weeks they could practice and fail miserably without any fear of their marks being impacted. They realised that their practice would affect their performance and thus influence their scores. Did they perform flawlessly? Nope, not one of them. But, they all memorised a large portion of their lines, and all stood in front of the group and performed. To me, that was a success.

Now, how do you apply this in your setting? How do you help students see the importance of practice with a clear understanding of how they will be assessed? Again, I have some thoughts on that:

  • Co-create the criteria for evaluation with the students. If they own it, they will understand it
  • Begin with the end in mind. If you know how you will assess your students, you will be less likely to dedicate time to superfluous learning
  • Share the assessment with the students. This does seem a little radical at times; however, when I think about letting students see the test BEFORE they write the test, it will allow them time to think about what they know and what they need to learn. If you are worried about kids simply memorising answers to a test, you may want to re-examine the test itself and ask if memorisation is synonymous with learning.

I understand that teaching is much more than 9-to-5; however, it is what we do, and as I shared recently with some senior administrators and board members, it’s what we do very, very well at Waldheim School. I know I’ve only brushed the surface of engaging students in learning, but I do believe it is something we need to discuss continually, and without too many spoilers, believe it is something that will undoubtedly guide our adult learning in the future. I think it is the teamwork and commitment to students that will help us take our work from the gold level to that of supernova!

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About the Author: Bruce Mellesmoen


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