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Advancing the Imperative of Authentic Practice

Throughout the AACTE Annual Meeting sessions in Atlanta, I was reminded of the lesson from Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert. The imperative of ample, authentic practice as a foundation for professional mastery resonated across several conference presentations.

First, I heard Mary Brownell (University of Florida and the CEEDAR Center) cite literature that suggests it takes 7-10 years to achieve professional expertise. Then in a major forum, Brandon Busteed (Gallup) discussed the need for students to have project-based learning experiences and the opportunity to do something that they are best at each day, building on their strengths. And Marc Schwartz (University of Texas, Arlington) tied the theme together for me in his forum on the Future of Learning, outlining a means of building understanding through goals, learning grounded in experience, scaffolded practice, formative feedback, and connections that link principles to contexts.

Our current culture is one that promotes getting fast, cheap solutions. We “Google it” for answers and look to Wikipedia for deeper “research.” We text, tweet, and use Instagram for rapid connections. (Have you noticed the exasperation when Internet service is out—or even worse, just slow?) There is constant pressure for results, but perhaps we need to adjust our expectations, step back, and slow down.

Schwartz’s research suggests that when students investigate a subject in depth rather than for breadth, their increased understanding correlates to an additional half year’s worth of study. Of course, most educational systems are not designed to follow this trajectory; students want to know the correct answer and how to get it quickly rather than taking chances with discovery. It reminds me of the Albert Einstein quote: “The only sure way to avoid making mistakes is to have no new ideas.”

This concept aligns with Busteed’s message as well. In a Gallup poll of business executives, just 11% felt that college graduates were prepared for success in the workplace. Furthermore, in 32 countries where data were available, a negative correlation was found between standardized test scores and entrepreneurial activity. In conversations with the ambassador of Singapore, Busteed learned that this country, which consistently receives top rankings on international test scores, is most concerned about its citizens’ creativity and entrepreneurial activity.

Perhaps educators need to think about working with district- and state-level leaders—as suggested by Brownell—in order to create a common understanding to build systems that emphasize more practice. Especially in teacher preparation, we should carefully consider what it takes to develop highly effective professionals. The CEEDAR Center’s “innovation configurations” make great strides toward that end.

A call for more authentic practice was the underlying theme in each of these presentations at the Annual Meeting. From preparing preservice teachers with a deep understanding of content knowledge and pedagogy to developing in-service teachers’ abilities to create learning environments that cultivate problem solving and collaboration, we must be mindful of the need to provide all learners with ample practice time and opportunity to make mistakes, use their strengths, be creative, and take risks.

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Donna Sacco

George Mason University - AACTE intern