Did Somebody Say Practice?

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


1 http://www.brainfacts.org/about-neuroscience/ask-an-expert/articles/2014/does-practice-make-perfect

2 http://www.edutopia.org/neuroscience-brain-based-learning-neuroplasticity


Moving Students Toward Independent Practice

Introduction to the Series

Effortless. Easy. Dynamic. Impactful. Game Changer!

How do you feel about students working independently in your classroom? Can you identify with the description above, or has your experience been totally different? What does independent practice mean to you and to the success of your students?

These are some of the questions I find myself asking teachers when working in their classrooms. The response is typically that of frustration, a matter of time, or getting students to really work during that time block. I can totally relate. Having taught kindergarten for many years, I know what it is like to be in the trenches of the classroom where we are concerned about our students’ future and overall wellbeing. Where we are performing a balancing act each day to meet our students’ needs, to keep them motivated, and to get the wanted results by the end of year assessment. Ultimately we want what is best for their learning wellbeing and what is most effective for our instructional practice. My ultimate question, therefore, is: how do I support teachers to effectively meet students’ individual needs?

What if I told you that there is an amazing and unutilized practice that is the answer to that question? What if I show you an amazing instructional practice that you already know and most likely do right now in your classroom? It has students working independently and collaboratively while you are in small group instruction. It’s called Independent Practice Block, also known as Independent Work, Workshop, Independent Learning Time, etc… This is the practice, but we are going to look at it differently.

In this series we will look at independent practice from several lenses for the purpose of understanding independent practice and small group instruction as critical instructional game-changer in the classroom. We will explore different types of practice, how to use practice and procedure to prepare students for working independently, how to move through each stage of independent practice, and what to do to insure success.

So let’s do this.

By: Terri Hamilton