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Appropriate Practice in the Classroom

One of the most important principles of successful instruction is providing students with practice that is designed to help them develop the knowledge and skills called for in a stipulated objective. This involves identifying the desired outcome and giving students feedback. Yet sometimes even experienced teachers mistakenly assume that the activities they structure with great care are appropriate for the goals they have established.

An experiment that took place at a public middle school in New York City's Harlem involving 48 mostly Hispanic and black students illustrates how complex the principle of appropriate practice can be ("Socrates' New Students," Miller-McCune, Jan./Feb*). The participating students took philosophy classes twice a week for three years from sixth through eighth grades. They were required to debate four new subjects every year, often in pairs and online. Researchers documented their progress in using evidence to mount rebuttals.

Concurrently, a separate control group of 23 students at the same school studied philosophy in a more traditional way, using a textbook, participating in class discussions and writing 14 essays each year. This compared with only four essays in the experimental group. At the end of every year, all students wrote essays on a subject that neither group had ever discussed. (Although the exact instructional objective was not published, I assume that students were expected to be able to write a short persuasive essay on a given topic in the news.)

According to researchers, the winners far and away were the students in the experimental group, even though they had been given much less practice writing. They based their judgment on the skill the debaters demonstrated in analyzing arguments. At first glance, this conclusion seems to contradict the principle of appropriate practice because the debaters composed far fewer essays than the writers.

How to explain the conclusion?

The answer is that it is not the amount of writing but the kind of writing that is called for. It is most likely that the debaters were provided practice developing the specific techniques they later effectively incorporated in their writing. Although the behavior they demonstrated was predominantly oral, rather than written, their critical thinking capacity was evidently enhanced. In contrast, the writers were given practice writing without the need to demonstrate their critical thinking in the same rigorous way.

To state the matter differently, writing is thinking put on paper. Writing does not take place in a vacuum. That's why "How To Write" books are almost always worthless. They assume that students have ideas they want to express in writing. But unless students have read widely, they have nothing compelling to say. When Ed Bradley of "60 Minutes" was alive, he was asked by a student how to become a good writer. Bradley told him that the best way was to read. Not only would students develop their thinking, but they would also internalize the cadence of words.

*Article not yet posted online.

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