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Appropriate Practice in the Classroom

One of the most important principles of effective instruction requires that teachers identify the knowledge and skills contained in a stipulated objective and provide their students with ample opportunities to develop them. This involves prompt feedback and careful monitoring of student progress.

Yet even experienced teachers often don't realize how complex the strategy is. Despite the considerable time and effort they devote to preparing lessons, they sometimes fail to achieve their objective. A recent experiment at a public middle school in New York City's Harlem is a case in point. Forty-eight students, mostly Hispanics and blacks, took philosophy classes twice a week for three years from sixth through eighth grades. They often debated in pairs using online a version of the Socratic method.

Concurrently, a separate group of 23 students (the control group) at the same school studied philosophy in a more traditional manner, using a textbook. They never debated online, but they wrote 14 essays apiece per year. This compares with only four essays in the experimental group.

At the end of every year, students in both the experimental and control group wrote essays on a subject neither group had ever discussed. To the surprise of researchers, the winners were students in the experimental group even though they had been given far less practice writing ("Socrates' New Students," Miller-McCune, Jan./Feb.). The article is not posted online. Although the specific instructional objective was not available, I assume it required that students write an essay on a topic in the news.

How to explain the results?

It seems that students in the experimental group developed skills that transferred to their writing even though they wrote fewer essays than students in the control group. In other words, it's not the amount of writing that matters but the kind of writing. Let's not forget that writing is essentially thinking put on paper. That's why books that claim to provide formulas for successful writing are practically worthless. Writing does not take place in a vacuum. Students first have to have something substantive to say.

When Ed Bradley of "60 Minutes" was once asked by a student how to become a good writer, he told the student to read as much as possible. By doing so, students internalize the cadence of words that they later can incorporate into their own writing.

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