We’re Talking About Practice!

We’re Talking About Practice!

Stephen Weber, who is in charge of things here at Educational Endeavors, tells me that the Chicago high school admission exams are October 26th, which means it’s time for EE to ramp up its classes and tutoring to help students practice.

This got me thinking about what it means to practice something, and how that practice does or doesn’t translate into performance during the “game.”

(No, I don’t like to think about school as a “game,” and I’m no fan of systems that subject students to these sorts of tests, but we’re also obligated to prepare students for the world they’re being asked to navigate, and when an exam comes coupled with potentially high stakes, it’s at least something like a game.)

“Practice makes perfect” could be the oldest cliche in the book, but I prefer how my Peloton instructors alter it into “practice makes progress” given that the whole point of practice is to make oneself continuously better.

I called my book The Writer’s Practice because I wanted to show students that writing is something that benefits from sustained, purposeful engagement that allows them to continuously and consciously build their knowledge of writing and confidence as writers.

Perhaps the most profound statement on what it means to “practice” comes from NBA legend Allen Iverson:

“We’re talking about practice. Not a game! Not a game! We’re talking about practice. Not a game; not the game that I go out there and die for and play every game like it’s my last, not the game, we’re talking about practice, man. I mean how silly is that? We’re talking about practice.

We’re talking about practice! We’re talking about practice…We ain’t talking about the game! We’re talking about practice, man! When you come to the arena and you see me play…you see me give everything I got, right? But we’re talking about practice right now!”

Iverson was responding to a question at an end-of-season press conference after his coach (Larry Brown) appeared to question Iverson’s practice habits. Iverson, a famously intense competitor, was attempting to draw a distinction, not necessarily that practice doesn’t matter, but that if you’re going to judge him, judge him by the thing that “counts,” the game itself.

Ideally, school itself should be the best preparation for the admission exam, since presumably the exam tests what students have learned in school, but this fails to account for the fact that there really is something different between practice where there are no stakes, and the high stakes that can attach to a single event.

Yes, it’s very important to know the material that the student is being tested on, but in these cases, it’s also equally important to be well-practiced in the format and feel of taking this kind of test. This is where test preparation, managed by people who are experts not just in the subject matter, but in the test itself, can make a difference.

This is important because as Allen Iverson reminds us, there is a difference between practice and the game, and the difference between shooting a free throw in an empty practice gym and shooting a free throw when thousands of lunatic fans are screaming at you is profound.

I think of my brief career as a performing musician, and no matter how much time the band spent practicing, I would be totally freaked out when we were playing on a stage for actual people.

It wasn’t even that many people! But the view and atmosphere were foreign and disorienting, and rather than settling into what I had practiced to do, my brain would race in counterproductive directions.

This is why practicing under game-like conditions that simulate what students will experience on these high stakes tests is so important. These aren’t tests of knowledge or long term dedication to one’s studies. These are one-off events, and the events themselves can be practiced.

And even more importantly, these one-off events can be practiced in such a way that they are put in a more helpful and productive context, because in truth, as important as they may seem, they are not determinative of the future life trajectory of the test takers. 

They matter, but they don’t count for everything. Keeping that perspective in mind as we practice, and recognizing that there’s going to be another opportunity to be tested around the corner, makes future success all the more likely.