One of the central key beliefs in improving skills is the idea of practice. "Everyone" says you need to practice if you want to improve. Is this advice actually going to work? Having a clear understanding of what kind of practices WILL give you the results you are aiming for is important. Then you can avoid the kinds of practices that will only lead to mediocrity. Read on so you can identify each kind.
Before you move on, have you ever heard a competitive sportsperson say, "I practice....?" Maybe a few might say yes. However, the majority will I believe look at you quizzically. For them, they work at their sport. They are either working at gaining improvement OR working at consistency. Neither of these activities can be called practice. Rather, they are working to achieve a result. Some have labelled this kind of work "deliberate practice". This is very different to the conventional idea of practice.
In real life, when we talk to people, there is usually an unspoken result we have in our minds. May be it is:
- achieving some kind of exchange ( like buying something at a shop)
- creating or maintaining a friendship
- helping somebody with a problem
That is "life". Calling these kinds of activities practice is not really correct.
Practicing a skill in the way that is talked about in classes and course books is a very different kind of activity. In the Merriam Webster dictionary, one definition is "to train by repeated exercises". This is the one that I believe most people think of when they told to practice. However in the area of skills, without building into it a defined outcome one is trying to achieve, it is a practice designed to have mixed or limited results. Repetition is, I would suggest, not a sufficient aim of itself.
Listen in, as I talk about this and a lot more to a group of advanced English learners with whom I was working with recently.
Alternatively, you may like to read a sanitized version of this recording below.
“The thing to understand is you can't remember a skill. I cannot remember skill. No one remembers skills you either do the skill or you don't do the skill. Either you can play basketball or you can't it. Either you can play guitar or you can't play guitar. We don't try to remember to play guitar, except for the meaning of having an intent to play or not. Once we decide, we sit down and play the guitar. Then, we either play the way we want or we don’t. And if we get it wrong, we fix it.
Remembering how to play is the wrong idea. We will never remember pronunciation as we speak. It's the wrong way to try to improve your pronunciation. The way to do it is to fix it and work at it so it sounds the way we want. I hate, I hate this word “practice” Do you know why?
Because …… I'll give you this example .... when you learn to play basketball, you try to get the ball into the basket, right? When you learn to play basketball, that's what you do. You spend a lot of time, you know, throwing in the direction of the basket, trying to get it in. Practicing is the wrong word. What you're trying to do is to get the ball in the basket. If you get the ball in the basket you are successful. If you miss it, you're not successful. So each time you are trying to achieve a measurable result.
You’re really focused, really focused on getting the ball into the basket. This notion of just throwing the ball and just practicing is a useless idea. You don't just throw the ball, practicing. You don’t just keep doing the thing and think you'll get better. You never get better just by doing the thing when you play basketball. The people who get better are very highly focused on getting the ball into the basket.
People who are really good at something will not say, “I just practiced” Practice somehow implies the idea of doing something nearly mindlessly. You are just practicing, you are just doing it. For somebody who's serious about improving a skill, they don't just practice. Their “practice” is, instead, highly focused.
It’s like laser focus. The trouble is that people practice and because they haven't got laser focus they waste their time doing this kind of repetition. Repetition is not the answer. Laser focus is the answer. This laser is a very thin light that can go a long distance and your focus is on this very thin piece of light.
The idea is not to focus all over the shop. You just focus on something very, very specific. Right? So, when basketball players are playing they are watching their hand movement, the speed of their throw, etc. They have laser focus on this. It's not just the throwing the ball any old way.
So practice doesn't make perfect. Practice makes repetition. If you want your “practice” to be useful, then you are working at improving. If you're not improving, there's no point to practice.
You have to be improving in some way. The improvement might be just making a skill stable. When you learn a new skill it seldom or ever starts off stable, you are just finding something new, a new position or something new. The function of “practice” is to make that really stable so it becomes really an unconscious skill you have. It’s an improvement. The improvement is that you have gone from an unstable skill to a stable skill or from having no skill to some skill.
So practice needs to result in improvement. If it doesn't result in improvement you have been wasting your time. This way you can practice 10 years and it still won’t make any difference. I have had many students who tell me they go home and practice English for two hours. They come back the next day. Their English is no better.
In my, opinion they have been wasting their time.
You have to have a kind of discipline or kind of work that results in improvement. That can only come from laser focus because if you are just sort of you know throwing the ball, improvement will be slow or non at all. Or if you are just practicing by reading a book, what's the improvement? I don't know what the improvement is. There may have been some.
However if you are aiming for some kind of improvement, then the result is not left to chance.
Does that make sense Sheikah?
Sheikah: “You mean that if you are reading a book, practice means yes, we're reading but if we focus on the language feature, is that what you're talking about?”
“When you're reading it depends on the reason you're reading. Sometimes, I mean if you got to a good level of English, let's say you may be reading for pleasure. Right? You are just enjoying the book.
Or you may be reading for information. That's not practice, that's reading because you're trying to get new information. Or you are just trying to relax and enjoy a book, right? They are different reasons.
The answer depends on why you're reading and what's the purpose of the reading. I don't call reading a book to enjoy it, for example, practice. I call that reading a book to enjoy it. Even if it’s a simple book, right. To call it practice is the wrong idea because if you're reading a book just for practice you are wasting your time. Read the book to enjoy it.
Now if you want to read the book for another reason, like to improve your grammar, it's a different kind of purpose, a different kind of focus. Everything is different.
So the important thing is to recognize why you are reading.
That’s the reason for it. Now. I'm sometimes you just really just use tired you'll reading and that's fine. But I'm talking about learning, right, trying to improve what you're doing. So, if you're trying to read to improve, be clear about why you reading. Now, maybe like I said just to enjoy and to learn to read a book and to enjoy the novel and as you enjoy it, you get better at it. It can happen because you are enjoying it.
Right, but if you try and improve consciously in any conscious way, you some kind of reason, some kind of purpose of why you're doing it."