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Exploiting Structured Practice

Preventing Discipline Problems

“Is it possible to teach a lesson so effectively that the need for corrective feedback is nearly eliminated?” The answer is YES – if we employ Say, See, Do Teaching. With Say, See, Do Teaching, the heart of any lesson is a series of Say, See, Do Cycles in which we tell and show the students what to do next and then put them to work doing it before they forget. As they learn by doing, we continually monitor performance as would any good coach. In this segment we will learn that there is more to successful coaching than just Say, See, Do.

Packaging a Lesson

As we begin to plan a lesson, it will be helpful to have a simple model for packaging student activity to make sure that nothing is left out. Lessons, regardless of the subject area, tend to have three sections. Like a play, they have a beginning, middle, and end. We will call these three sections:

  • Setting the Stage: This is the wind-up before the pitch. It is a series of discretionary decisions on your part. How much time do you wish to invest in such things as (1) anticipatory set, (2) review and background, (3) goals and objectives, (4) advance organizers?

  • Acquisition: This is the “meat and potatoes” of the lesson – the main event. During Acquisition students learn the new stuff. Acquisition is where Say, See, Do Teaching occurs. During Acquisition, however, there is one additional item that must be added to Say, See, Do Teaching - one that is crucial to success and one that is often omitted. That item is Structured Practice. Structured Practice is simply repetition that is so highly structured by the teacher that the likelihood of error is as close as possible to zero.

  • Consolidation: Consolidation is synonymous with “practice, practice, practice.” To represent levels of mastery we coin such terms as Guided Practice and Independent Practice. However, consolidation is an open-ended category. As any musician or athlete knows, there is no end to the quest for mastery.

Structured Practice

The role of Structured Practice is to build correct performance while avoiding bad habits. The traditional method of “getting it right the first time” is to slow the students down and walk them through performance one step at a time while watching like a hawk. If an error is made, now is the time to fix it.

In grade school my teachers taught this way. Imagine my fourth grade class going to the board for math. My teacher would say, “Let’s walk through this first one together slowly so that we all get it.” She would explain and write the problem, and we would write the problem. She would explain and write step one, and we would write step one. She would explain and write step two, and we would write step two. She could easily check every student’s work at each step since she could read our large numbers in chalk from the front of the room. If anything needed to be fixed, it was fixed immediately before we went to the next step. This was Say, See, Do Teaching.

After walking through the first problem, however, my teacher would say, “Let’s erase, class, and we’ll do another one.” The second problem would go a bit faster, the third a bit faster, and the fourth a bit faster yet. After my teacher had satisfied herself that we were getting it, she would say, “I think you have it now, class. Let’s do one more for speed, and then we’ll take our seats.” The repetitions at the board were Structured Practice. They welded new learning into patterns of thought and action that had a respectable degree of habit strength – what Benjamin Bloome calls “automaticity.”

The diagram below shows the structure of a lesson with Say, See, Do Cycles serving as the heart of Acquisition. Following the initial performance, R1, R2, R3 and R4 represent the repetitions typical of Structured Practice. Only after the creation of a reasonable level of automaticity with constant monitoring to ensure correct performance would we dare go to Guided Practice.

Perfect Practice

Hall of Fame NFL coach, Vince Lombardi said, “Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.” A key part of our job as teachers is to create perfect practice. The only alternative is the creation of bad habits. Teaching it right the first time is far cheaper than the work required to break bad habits.

Of course, students often chafe at Structured Practice. The guitar teacher tries to get the student to play five clean notes in a row with proper intonation while the kid dreams of doing Jimi Hendrix riffs. The basketball coach tries to get the sixth graders to shoot a lay-up off the correct foot while the kids dream of going coast-to-coast. Students want to go fast and furious – and ragged – while the teacher wants them to slow down and get it right. The eternal struggle of the teacher is to slow the students down until the speed of performance can be increased without increasing error.

Only with Structured Practice do we have enough control over performance to produce perfect practice. Usually, if the students are busy doing something rather than sitting and getting bored, they will cut us enough slack to accept the repetition of Structured Practice. They consent to being coachable.

Drill and Kill

Structured Practice is not to be confused with “Drill and Kill.” We can all remember doing math problems at our seats long after learning had reached the point of diminishing returns just so the teacher could keep us busy and quiet.

Over the years, however, almost all repetition has been stigmatized as “drill and kill.” It is hard to find a new teacher who is comfortable with the moderate level of repetition that constitutes Structured Practice.

Yet, common sense tells us that mastery requires a certain amount of repetition. Students do not gain comfort and fluency with a new skill the first time through. If we do not provide that repetition under controlled conditions, it will occur under uncontrolled conditions – usually with students going “fast and furious.”

Linking Instruction with Discipline

If we “pay our dues” during Structured Practice by providing adequate repetition within the context of constant monitoring and feedback, correct patterns of thought and action can gain a reasonable level of habit strength before we ask students to engage in Guided Practice. It is then reasonable to expect students to need very little help during Guided Practice.

From the perspective of discipline management, however, we will have laid the groundwork for truly successful and productive Guided Practice – one that produces independent learning rather than learned helplessness. For starters, adequate Structured Practice eliminates much of the performance anxiety that leads to helpless handraising during Guided Practice. Praise, Prompt, and Leave and Visual Instructional Plans then reduce the duration of corrective feedback to a few seconds. Helpless handraising is finally being placed on extinction.

We are setting ourselves free. We can now move on from tutoring the helpless handraisers to other more important tasks during Guided Practice. We can, for example, monitor student performance during Guided Practice to ensure additional perfect practice. But there are other dividends that can now be reaped from successful Guided Practice that will reduce our stress and exhaustion while increasing the quality of student work. Tune in next month.

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