I would like to start this segment with a high leveled view of independent practice. The reason I chose to highlight independent practice in this series is that it is critical to small group instruction. They are intrinsically intertwined. Though independent practice can exist without small group instruction, small group instruction cannot occur in the classroom without the presence of independent practice. Independent practice is the vehicle by which teachers are able to create time and space to implement small group instruction; therefore, attention to how it is implemented must be a high level of focus within the classroom.
Let’s look at practice through the lens of our students’ physical brains. Students’ brains are in the process of growth and change. This state of pliability is ripe for learning information, which is directly linked to memory. There are two types of memory, short-term (STM) and long-term (LTM), of which information is stored in the brain. When information is taught, students are able to recall it somewhere between 3 to 24 hours after.1 Though we see evidence the information has been learned following the lesson, it will last for only for a short period of time in STM. Touchback to real life; we experience this when we spend time painstakingly teaching a concept, only for students to return the following day looking like deer in headlight when we revisit it. It makes perfect sense now that we understand STM gives us a very limited retention of what has been learned. Ultimately any new information we teach cannot be stored in LTM without the presence of practice.
So, why is practice important? It moves new or learned information from STM to LTM. Once a neural pathway is developed, it is the presence of practice that reinforces the strength of the connection; making it thicker and more streamlined.2 Think of a hiking trail. The more people who walk the trail, and the more often they walk it, the thicker, more pronounced it will be. Similarly, the more that students practice a concept or skill, the thicker, more strongly reinforced and better linked the neural pathways will be in their brains.
How do we move information from STM to LTM; where it can be easier to retrieve and lasts longer? Say it with me. Practice. This is why our focus is on independent practice when considering small group instruction. Once a concept or skill is taught, and students are accurate in its use, it is practice that moves them from accuracy, to fluency, and then to maintenance. We use small group instruction to ensure that the practice is correct and fluency is developed. Independent practice is there to make sure students maintain, or keep a strong neuropathway to, the concept or skill.
Essentially, through the use of practice, we are sculptors of the developing mind. We literally mold and refine the connections in students’ brains creating long-term memories that are a work of art.
By: Terri Hamilton