Saturday, May 28, 2016

Practicing Skills, Strategies & Processes

The Marzano Center has published a series called Essentials for Achieving Rigor. Kelly Harmon, Robert J. Marzano, Kathy Marx and Ria A. Schmidt collaborated to write Practicing Skills, Strategies, & Processes: Classroom Techniques to Help Students Develop Proficiency. The book is arranged so that each chapter discusses one technique. Every chapter includes a chart with implementation guidelines, elementary and secondary examples drawn primarily from ELA and math classrooms, common errors in implementation, and scaffolding and extension ideas.

In the resource room we tend to do lots of practice so I thought this book might have some insights into the skill. They identify two categories of practice with a couple of techniques to each. Guided Practice involves working with the teacher and contains close monitoring, worked examples and frequent structured practice. Independent Practice includes fluency, varied practice and practice before tests.

Close monitoring as a separate technique is interesting. Back in my early days of teaching we talked about monitor and adjust instruction. This has an element of that idea. The authors recommend that initial attempts be supervised carefully. It also includes the idea that practice, especially when initially learning a skill needs to be correct. When we practice something incorrectly, we are learning it badly and it takes more work to correct misunderstandings or unteach information or processes than to teach it originally. One central component then is to not assign independent practice until the student is successful under guided practice. This is contrary to many homework assignments I have seen children work with. One source I saw indicated that if a student cannot complete an assignment with 85% accuracy, it should not be homework. We should not expect parents to teach the material or the student to have to look up how to complete the task. This is asking for trouble. Further, if we assign independent practice too early in the learning cycle, we risk students not learning the material at all.

The chapter on frequent structured practice had a gem in it for me. On page 49 they suggest that practice at this stage be every 24 hours or less after the initial learning. This does not mean send the kids home with an assignment and expect them to complete it on their own. This means the next day practice it again under supervision. Daily practice of new skills is important. We know this with reading. That is why primary teachers ask students to read every night at home. It provides the practice with early reading skills that are essential for learning to read. One thing that the authors did not address was how to accommodate this idea in an alternate day style schedule common to many secondary environments. If research says that structured practice needs to occur within 24 hours, these schedule types eliminate the possibility of such and occurrence.  As students grow comfortable with the skill, the practice becomes spaced with longer intervals.

Fluency was another interesting chapter. They define fluency as having two separate strands- automatic processing, such as reading and math facts, and controlled processing, such as writing a research paper. They authors strongly suggest students learn multiplication facts to automaticity. In the world of special education we sometimes suggest that students do not need to do this- they have calculators. Unfortunately, if we want our students to conquer algebra, they do really need to have mastered multiplication facts. Without this automatic knowledge, they are slowed to a crawl, forgetting what they are doing mid problem and finding the topic exceedingly challenging. One key feature of fluency is that students need to have learned the discrete skills prior to focusing on speed. If reading fluency is focused on speed rather than comprehension, students become word callers. If students do not understand how to write all the elements of a paragraph (topic sentence, details, conclusions and transitions), they should not be asked to do so for homework.

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