Practice still makes perfect

A. J. Downs

March 20, 1992|By A. J. Downs

THE Olympics were exciting, heartbreaking, inspiring, even informative. For this old English teacher, however, they were more agonizing than anything else.

What is the ratio, I wondered as I watched Bonnie Blair on the victory stand, between the hours she spent in lonely practice, day after day, year after year -- and the minutes spent in actual competition? An hour of practice to a minute of competition? Ten hours? Downhill ski runs take less than two minutes; how many hours of practice does it take to earn that lonely moment in the start house? Add up the hours of practice, the sheer energy expended, by the American team alone, and you have enough to launch an Atlas rocket.

For that matter, how many times did Brooks Robinson scoop up a grounder and arc it over to first -- for fun, for practice -- compared to the times he did it when the game was on the line? How many practice jump shots for Michael Jordan? How many scales for Arthur Rubinstein? Is there a more exhausted cliche than Practice Makes Perfect? Or a truer one?

And how does an English teacher -- in a time when everyone from Bill Bennett to Kurt Schmoke is sounding off on the problems of education -- get people to listen when his version of the solution is so simple it sounds like the kid and the bare-cheeked emperor?

It is this: Reading and writing are the key skills, worth more over a lifetime than all the free throws and triple axels put together. And skills, all skills, are developed and improved in one way and one way only: practice. And I believe that the average American kid today performs at least one athletic skill five times as efficiently as she reads -- because she practices it at least five times as much. And I think that is a national scandal, one whose stain spreads quite evenly over the whole culture.

Why don't our kids perform intellectual, academic skills better? Because they don't practice reading and writing. Why don't they practice those skills? Because they would rather practice other skills, like skiing or skating or punting or Frisbee throwing or break dancing . . . And because we adults permit, condone, even encourage that allocation of time and energy.

What about the schools? What, indeed? Look at the best of them; look at Gilman, where I taught for 40 years. How many hours does a Gilman football player spend in practice as opposed to actually playing in a game? Five hours of practice for each hour of actual playing? How much time does he spend practicing the far more important skills of reading and writing, highly sophisticated eye-brain processes, as opposed to using them to pass a test? You may be sure that that ratio does not approach one-to-one. I am not talking about homework; that is the equivalent of what the coaches call "game conditions." Gilman kids, I have always said, don't read books; they read assignments. (I should note here that Gilman is simply a convenient symbol for any high-powered college-preparatory school, call it City College or Exeter.)

Look at it this way: A coach sets aside four out of five days for practice. If a teacher sets aside four out of five days simply to practice a skill, he or she can't possibly "cover the material," and his students will do badly on the achievement test.

I submit that our problem is so simple we can't see it: We set aside time to practice physical skills. Because we do, kids develop the skills and eventually enjoy using them. But we expect our kids to master the far more difficult skills of reading and writing almost entirely under what I call "game conditions" -- tests or assignments. Thus, quite naturally, they do not develop the skills to the point where they enjoy using them.

Educator and author Ted Sizer suggests we are so content-oriented that we compulsively try to stuff more and more information into our students, ignoring the inevitable consequence that in three months they forget most of it. His motto, "Less is more," suggests, as I do, that if we teach skills better, not only will the students forget less; they will be stimulated to seek learning on their own -- because they will read and write more skillfully, and will therefore enjoy it more. (Reading and writing, after all, are simply modes of thinking, which is the central, the ultimate skill.)

Nothing more neatly exemplifies the problem of teaching skills than the cacophonous duet I listened to in my years as Gilman's director of college placement. The bass line was carried by the visiting professor from Ivy U., who would rumble: "You high school people aren't teaching your kids to read with fluency or to write with style -- or even accuracy." But he was drowned out by the tenor, the dean of admissions: "Look, without a couple of good AP's [advanced placements] and high SAT [Scholastic Aptitude Test] scores, we're not going to take your candidates seriously."

"The City That Reads": It looks fine on the benches and trucks, but until we demand that the skill of reading be practiced perhaps a third as hard as the Dunbar Poets practice the skill of making free throws, nothing significant will happen.

A.J. Downs writes from Baltimore.

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