What If We Called It Practice?

Tim Van SoelenThe CACE Roundtable2 Comments

“If the kids haven’t learned the concepts by the time they leave the classroom, the homework is pointless.”

H.O.M.E.W.O.R.K = Half Of My Energy Wasted On Random Knowledge.

“Homework – the teachers’ way to find out how smart parents are!”

The recent articles, blogs, rants, and defenses of homework have definitely caused me to think deeply about what I assign (or refer to as homework) to students at the masters level. Confession: I was definitely guilty of assigning too much homework as a just-out-of-college middle school math teacher (but we all teach like we were taught, right? Lame excuse by-the-way) using the old Saxon Pre-Algebra and Algebra textbooks. It was easy to finish my “show and go” math lesson of-the-day with a “please complete numbers 1-30 for tomorrow” send-off to a chorus of groans. Alternatively, on a particularly good day e.g. when the Cubs won, “just the evens for tomorrow” since the answers to the odds were in the back of the book.

It did not take long, however, for me to realize that when the math was applied, the engagement and effort levels changed significantly. It didn’t matter whether we were playing the L.A. Times Stock Market Game and multiplying mixed numbers at frantic rates to see whose was rising or falling, or playing fantasy baseball and writing equations that would somehow benefit Barry Bonds’ (pre-steroids) five-star abilities, the students were all in. Their conversations at morning break were about how much their stocks had gone up or down or whether Jose Canseco or Mark McGuire had better statistics for their unique algorithms. Student would rush into the classroom before the bell rang to grab the LA Times to check and see what the DOW did or how many strikeouts Roger Clemens (again, pre-steroids) had compiled the night before and how they should adjust their functional equations to get more points for the next round. Most importantly, they knew how to use the mathematical principles to find the answers. They were practicing, skilled and targeted practice.

Did I still assign homework? I did, and I still referred to it as homework (my bad). I hope the assignments that I now offer to students are targeted at developing skills. I hope students see these projects as targeted practice in what it takes to create a flourishing school culture (for future leaders in EDUC 560, Foundations of Leadership) or writing a research analysis (for thesis-ready students in EDUC 503, Research Methods). Why do I assign these practice opportunities? Because practice is part of the educational process. And not just inside the classroom.

Walk down the hallway to the performing arts auditorium or to the gymnasium. Sports, music, and theater all provide beautiful models for us in how we can develop expertise. As a former middle school girls basketball coach, the one drill we did every practice was the Mikan Drill. Named after famed center, George Mikan, this was a drill that focused on quick put backs on both sides of the basket. My rationale for this drill was that this is our best opportunity to score, whether it be on an offensive rebound or through an offensive maneuver that allowed a player to get the ball under the basket. To acquire a skill, practice is necessary. However, just like the young women on the middle school basketball team demonstrated on occasion, when practice is unsupervised, lacks feedback, or players did not have the pre-requisite skills to perform the task, the net consequences are frustration, poor form, and de-motivated players.

Let’s truly embrace and understand that most students love going to practice, whether that be to audition for All-state choir or getting ready to perform The Music Man. They enjoy getting really good at something and are willing to spend hours practicing a skill that will be showcased somewhere other than a multiple choice assessment. How can we create opportunities (real work that meets a real need for real people) for them to perform the skills they are practicing?

I do not think this blog is simply a quibbling over semantics, a simple substitution of the word practice for homework. It is not that simple. What if, as teachers, we stop thinking about homework as we have traditionally known it, and started thinking about how our students have opportunities (in and out of the classroom) to deliberately practice skills that will be used in a performance, how might that change our own “practice?”

Here are a few questions for you to ruminate over with some friends:

  1. Do our students have the pre-requisite skills to practice well? If not, how do we differentiate their practice?
  2. Are our students able to show competency on the skill? If they demonstrate competency, do we provide them with another opportunity to practice a more complex skill?
  3. Does the acquired skill lead to a performance that captures their imagination and desire?

If my middle school girls basketball team only practiced the Mikan drill, they would never have had the opportunity to perform that last-second put-back basket to win the middle school Mountain Valley League championship, hear the roar of the crowd, and celebrate that skill they had been practicing all season!


  • Tim Van Soelen

    Dr. Tim Van Soelen serves as the Director of CACE. Tim is also a professor of education at Dordt University. He has served as a principal, assistant principal, and middle school math and computer teacher at schools in South Dakota and California. Tim has his undergraduate degree from Dordt and advanced degrees from Azusa Pacific University and the University of South Dakota.

2 Comments on “What If We Called It Practice?”

  1. Thank you for the wise words, Tim.

    As a parent who laments having to nag my children about completing school work during our limited “family time” in the evening, I appreciate teachers who respect the boundaries between home and school.

    As a teacher, I’ve seen the improvements in learning that can occur when I talk less and provide more time to practice–in class.

  2. Thanks, Al. There were few things I enjoyed less than working with my own kids on homework they did not know how to do. Some tears, some frustration, some anger…and those were my feelings :). I think/know we can do better, especially when faculty collaborate how to do this better together.

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