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How to make your students beg for more practice!

In a prior post we looked at repetitions as practice and the importance of practice in achieving mastery.  See the May 17th post Tell Me What You Did Wrong (http://jponline.com/jp-blog ). In this post we are going to revisit the idea of 10,000 hours of practice and learn how practice can be both effective and fun by making practice a game. 

Good, Better, Best:

After students read a list of words correctly teacher can introduce this game.  Remember it is important to make sure students have the reading of the words correct before practicing-we don’t want them practicing incorrect decoding because then we would need to re-teach.  In addition to losing instructional time for the re-teaching, it will take three times as many repetitions for the student to internalize the correct answer.

  • After the first reading of the list, say, “That was good, but I bet you can read them even better” Have students repeat the list.
  • Then say, “That was better. Let’s do it again. This time give me your best”. The added practice will help to develop the automaticity necessary for fluent reading.

Top Down, Bottom Up:

Another way to add repetitions to word calling is to have students read every list from top to bottom and then from the bottom to the top. The teacher can make this fun by calling it “Top down, bottom up” and presenting it enthusiastically.

Beat the Computer:

PowerPoint can also be effective ways to give added practice. The teacher challenges students to “Beat the Computer”- a game they love. The PowerPoint displays a word; the children say the word before a picture appears. The PowerPoint then moves to the next word. This type of practice can be used for Math Facts, names of letters, sight words, and vocabulary. Actually, it is only limited by the teacher’s creativity.

Here are examples for practice of basic math facts and for decoding.


With the math facts, the problem appears, students say the answer and then, the correct answer flies in. For example:

  • Students see the problem 3+4; they say the answer, and then, the number seven flies in.
  • The next problem appears, 3+5; students say the answer, and then, the numeral 8 flies in.
  • Continuing, the problem 3+6 appears, students say the answer, and then, the 9 flies in.


With the reading example, the word appears, students decode it and then the picture flies in. For example:

  • The letters d-o-g appear, the students decode and say “dog” and then the picture of the dog appears.
  • Next, the letters d-u-c-k appear, the students decode and say “duck” and then the picture of the duck appears.
  • Finally the letters m-a-n appear, the students decode and say “man” and then the picture of the man appears.

10,000 Hours

We have all heard the adage, “Practice makes perfect.” This is inaccurate. It is more accurate to say that Practice Makes Permanent. If we practice something the wrong way, we learn it and remember it the wrong way. That is why we, as teachers, should not assign items for homework that are either new or have been confusing for certain students to internalize. We have no idea how our students are practicing those items. ONLY perfect practice makes perfect permanence and leads to mastery.

Another way to think of MEANINGFUL repetitions is Practice. In the book Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell says that it takes roughly ten thousand hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field. How does Gladwell arrive at this conclusion? And, if the conclusion is true, how can we leverage this idea to achieve greatness in our students?

Gladwell studied the lives of extremely successful people to find out how they achieved success. Please listen to the results of this study: (Fly in picture of violinist)

In the early 1990s, a team of psychologists in Berlin, Germany studied violin students. Specifically, they studied their practice habits in childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. All of the subjects were asked this question: “Over the course of your entire career, ever since you first picked up the violin, how many hours have you practiced?”

All of the violinists had begun playing at roughly five years of age with similar practice times. However, at age eight, practice times began to diverge. By age twenty, the elite performers averaged more than 10,000 hours of practice each, while the less able performers had only 4,000 hours of practice. The elite had more than double the practice hours of the less capable performers.

Natural Talent was Not Important

One fascinating point of the study: No “naturally gifted” performers emerged. If natural talent had played a role, we would expect some of the “naturals” to float to the top of the elite level with fewer practice hours than everyone else. But the data showed otherwise. The psychologists found a direct statistical relationship between hours of practice and achievement. No shortcuts. No naturals.

How Many of Us are Insane?

How do you define insanity?  We probably have all heard this definition: Doing the same thing but expecting something different.  Using this as a rubric, many of us probably qualify!  Think back to someone you have had to provide the same feedback time after time, and their behavior doesn’t change.  Our first reaction is, “What is wrong with them?”  However, there is another question we should ask ourselves: “How can I relay this feedback differently?”

Let’s look at two points before we move on:

  • First, relationships-if you have been following this blog, you know how important relationship building is.  Relationships are a two way street, so the burden of its success is on both people.  Should we examine how we deliver feedback to make it more effective for the individual, in a sense customize it? Yes. This does not negate the responsibility the individual has to be receptive and actively implement that feedback.
  • Second, feedback and change can’t happen in a vacuum.  One of my favorite quotes from Lezotte states:

“…the system in place is ideally suited to producing the results the school is currently getting…any change in the desired results, from the current system in place is going to require a change in mission, core beliefs, and core values that underpin the system, especially if the goal is to permanently sustain the desired change.”

The system and culture of the building needs to be worked on at the same time as the specific change we are trying to achieve. If there is a culture of fear or apathy, then the best feedback delivered in the most effective manner will most likely fall on deaf ears.  Leaders must establish a culture of safety and learning.  Safety meaning people (leaders and their staff both) don’t have to fear mistakes, but use them as learning opportunities.  Learning meaning people have a growth mindset. They look for opportunities to learn and are eager to learn.


So what goes through the mind of someone you are asking to change?

In talking to leaders and teachers alike, often the first thought is defensive.  They feel their beliefs, expertise and experience are being challenged and attacked.  In other words, all of their hard work is being questioned.  They don’t feel valued. It becomes a “you against them” situation.

They also have the opinion that “this too will pass.”  Staffs often survive different leaders; different initiatives and just feel if they wait it out, it will go away.  They come to believe that change doesn’t work.  Change leaders need to move people beyond these feeling and the resulting resistance. They need to guide people through the process of accepting the need for change and then need to help them manage that change. 

Three Effective Practices for Change Leaders

We know the challenges. What can leaders do? Here are three practices:

  • Engage: Relationships-there is that word again. If you want to engage people you need to build relationships with them-be sincere and trustworthy in all your interactions. After that is in place, people want a clear plan that they can buy into.  Create a plan that provides a final goal, objective or milestones along the way and a rubric by which progress can be measured. Remember to keep in mind maintaining a safe culture that allows for hiccups and a culture of learning that allows new information, and the flexibility to incorporate that new information.
  • Practice:  What holds true for teaching students holds true for teaching in general—and even more for learning new concepts that call for a change in behavior.  Learners learn by doing, by practicing.  The change we want needs to be embedded in the daily work we are trying to change.  It can’t be something separate and theoretical.  It must be practical and deliver benefits to the people involved in the change effort.

Leaders support staff in this process by being a coach. If we practice something the wrong way, we learn it and remember it the wrong way. Leaders should monitor frequently, document what they see, and provide feedback. Feedback that refers back to the plan in the bullet above provides consistency and clarity.

  • Reflect: Reflection is often neglected, which is unfortunate since it is so essential to the change process (any process really).  In the first bullet point, we talked about a rubric.  In the second bullet point we talked about monitoring and collecting information.  Reflection is the review/analysis of the information collected, how it aligns or doesn’t align with the rubric, and what appropriate next steps should be.  It allows leaders to identify patterns of success or failure and to communicate those patterns in a meaningful and supportive way to staff. It also allows for mini-celebrations along the way that recognize the hard work and achievement of people.


If we keep doing the same thing, we get the same results.  Expecting anything else is insanity.  Change is both about the people and the system, not either/or.  Relationship building is essential to the change process. So, is providing a clear plan with concrete objectives. The plan and how it is implemented needs to be monitored regularly with staff receiving supportive feedback that guides them along the plan to the final goal.  

Get out There!

Many of you are probably familiar with the TV show “Undercover Boss.” It is a television franchise series created by Stephen Lambert and produced in many countries. It originated in 2009 in England. The show’s format features the experiences of senior executives working undercover in their own companies to investigate how their firms really work and to identify how they can be improved, as well as to reward hard-working employees. (Thanks, Wikipedia).

The same theme can be seen in fairy tales-where the king or queen wants to leave their ivory tower and visit the people.  There is usually a transformation that takes place as these leaders learn about the challenges facing their people and attempt to fix the problem.

Here is my take away—leaders need to be out and about, not stationary in their office. Sitting in the office you often will only see or hear about the issues people bring you. Getting out you see what is happening firsthand.  Getting out allow you also to connect with those people that don’t speak out or come to your office.

Relationships! Relationships! Relationships!

Relationship building is one of the most effective strategies for leading people in general, and especially leading people through change.  Relationship building is a proactive process.  This means walking around your school, talking to staff and students, not to correct but to connect.

I stay in touch with a good deal of teachers and former students. They range in age from 25 to 50.  The one common memory they have is of my “walks” throughout the day in and around the building.  Teacher share that it gave them real time access to someone who had the power to make decisions—and by having the opportunity to talk to me, they shared in the power. Students share the same kind of thoughts—they could approach me informally outside of my office.   They also knew during class or lunch or a free time outside I would be walking around. This helped them monitor their behavior.  My presence, just my walking around, reminded them of our program’s expectations.

principal walking around

I can’t get out of my office

Many administrators say they want to get out of their office, they just can’t.  There is always someone waiting to see them, or a problem that needs to be addressed, etc.  There isn’t enough time!

In “Assembly Required” Lezotte shares that it is not time that is the problem; it is value choice. We choose to spend our time on what we value or what is most comfortable or familiar. Change just doesn’t happen!

If we want different results, change has to happen.  Change is incremental. Change should be modeled.  Change needs to begin with ourselves. If we place value on getting out into the school, then we will find the time.

Here is how one principal did it.  He made the choice to set aside 2 hours in the day to visit classrooms and walk around the room. Once he made that choice, all subsequent decisions made had to support the decision to set aside those two hours.

This time was sacrosanct. His office was told people that called or came looking for him that he could not be interrupted during this time—he was in the classrooms.  People were redirected to someone else or an appointment was made for a future time.

The results were fewer problems needing to be sent to the office and increase student achievement!


Lawrence Lezotte writes, ““…the system in place is ideally suited to producing the results the school is currently getting…”  If we want to change those results, we need to change the system.  Change is about choice. 

Friday Reflection: Listening

Of all the leadership skills, listening is the most valuable and one of the least understood-Peter Nulty, Fortune Magazine

As you think back on this week, ask yourself these questions:

  • When you spoke to people, did you listen and make them feel like they were important and valued? If you did, remember and use those strategies again. If, not, what can you do differently next week?
  • Did you cut off people, answering them before they even finished their thoughts?  Did you stop listening and starting thinking of what you were going to say?
  • Yes, maybe you knew the answer, but letting people finish their thoughts is a way of respecting them. Plus, your mindset is that they are not bringing anything to the table and whatever they have to say won’t affect your thoughts-in other words they don’t matter.
  • Did you see interactions with people as a way to build relationships? Of learning more about them or learning something new?
  • When you interact with people is one of your goals to help them grow from good to great? How will you do that? Are you trying to empower them or just get rid of them?



Are You Solving the Right Problem?

“If I had 60 minutes to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes defining it, and 5 minutes solving it.” Albert Einstein.

The causes of a problem are often not obvious.  Without knowing the actual cause of the problem, the group can choose the wrong “fix,” wasting valuable time, resources and energy.  Far too often, we give a knee jerk reaction to problems, not taking the time up front to examine it because we are busy.  The truth is putting work up front to identify root causes and design appropriate solutions saves us time in the long run.

The Five Whys is an easy problem solving strategy to learn and apply.  It has applications both for group work and for one on one discussion (when a staff person comes to you for advice, it is a great way to empower them).




Detention or Alarm Clocks?

For example, we were working with a principal that was experiencing a great deal of student tardiness.  His solution was a Saturday detention where students would catch up on work they missed. Now, this wasn’t a terrible idea—students could use support in catching up (whether Saturday detention is the place to do that or not is open to debate).  But, was it addressing the root cause?

We used the Five Whys:

What is the problem:  Students are tardy

1.Why: Because they miss the buses

2.Why: Tardy students are coming from a long way off and if they miss the first bus, they missed the connection

3.Why: Busses run irregularly and this causes student to miss them and the subsequent connections needed

4.Why: Students are not getting up early enough to make the first bus

5.Why: These students had working parents (or non-supportive parents), for the most part, who left before the students did (or didn’t get up themselves), and it was up to the students to get up on their own.

The fifth why brought us to the root cause.  Students were not able to get up on their own and no one was home to wake them. Further exploration brought to light that these students did not own an alarm clock or if they had phones were not using the alarm feature.

Counselors met with students and the school either provided alarm clocks or made sure students knew how to use an alarm clock app on their phones. Students that followed through and were on time received positive reinforcement and recognition (certificates, announcements, privileges, etc.)

In addition to decreasing tardiness, this solution places the responsibility of getting to school on time on the shoulders of the students (should mention these were high school students).  It provides them with preparation for the real world of work.

Let’s Review:

Here is a quick summary of the how to use the Five Whys:

  • Write down the problem
  • Ask Why
  • Answer
  • Keep asking Why
  • Asking Why at least 5 times  will let you drill down to root causes

What do you need? Three things-an issue, people and something to write on (white board or flip charts works).  You are ready!

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