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Why Practice Is Essential To True Learning

3 Mar 2016

Why Practice Is Essential To True Learning

Practice does indeed make perfect

When I was quite a bit younger, to practice my French, I worked as an au pair in France. Initially I looked after a two and half year old. Sebastian had had different au pairs almost since birth and they all engaged with him in English.

Surfer doing practice

Sebastian, my charge, grew up speaking English as naturally as he spoke French

Children learn a lot more easily than do adults and they’re especially talented at learning languages. As an adult you have to work a bit harder to learn something new, but, once you’ve acquired a new skill and practiced it regularly, you can trust that it will be readily available to you.

And why is that?

When you learn something for the first time, a new neural pathway is created in the brain. This involves the neurons kind of reaching out and ‘wiring’ (electrically connecting) with other neurons. However, if you don’t practice the new skill regularly, the neurons stop wiring together and the pathway that was initially created disappears.

Effectively, you forget how to do the new skill.

Magic happens when you practice a new skill

The part of each neuron, the axon, that wires up with other neurons to form the neural pathway, gets covered in a substance called myelin. The myelin forms an insulating sheath around the axons. The more you engage in focused practice, the more myelin gets added around the axons.

Myelin effectively increases the speed and strength of the connections

This means that the more thoroughly you learn the new skill the better you get at it. You find your new skill becomes easier and, depending on the skill, the more quickly you can do it. I say depending on the skill because if, for example, the skill is playing a piece of music then playing it more quickly isn’t necessarily an improvement!

So, by practicing something repeatedly, the skill becomes easier and more fluid

But it’s not just frequent practising that delivers this skill, it’s thoughtful, quality practice; practising something in a mindful way so that you notice when you’ve made a mistake and can make adjustments accordingly.

Depending upon what skill you’re practising, the length of time spent may matter less than taking on board and incorporating the feedback you get from the activity itself.

Even ten minutes of focused, quality practice each day, may be better than two hours of rote practice or repeating something for the sake of practicing.

If you keep repeating the same mistakes, you wire those mistakes into your brain.

When you first learn something it often feels awkward and unnatural

Sometimes it feels downright difficult. You might believe that you’ve learnt something simply because you’ve been on a training course where it was taught. But at the point you try something once, you’ve merely created a new neural pathway. As I mentioned earlier, if you don’t use what you’ve learnt – you lose it; the neural pathway that was created ‘unwires’. So if it’s a skill that’s important to you, it’s useful to move past the awkward and unnatural phase.

Regular, mindful practice is essential

If you want to learn computer skills but haven’t really had much to do with computers previously, then ‘learning computer skills’ can feel completely overwhelming. After all there are enough computer programmes around to occupy several people for their entire lifetime!

So don’t do that to yourself.

Just focus on one aspect of computer skills a week

For example, learn keyboard shortcuts so you can speed up your work. Simple, right? Simple is good. Do this a few times a day for a week and you’ll notice how it’s becoming easier and quicker. Now add a bit more. There are plenty of sites that offer free training and there are loads of videos on YouTube to help you out, no matter what you want to learn. You can go back and watch them over and over. But it’s vital to allocate the time and the focus to practice, if you want to become proficient.

Don’t wait to learn something until you ’need’ it

If you learn something and use it only once it’s unlikely you’ll remember how you did it, some months down the track – usually when you really need it. The neurons are no longer wired together because you didn’t practice it when you learnt it and you almost have to start again from scratch. If you use the new skill once and then forget about it until the next time you ’need’ it, you won’t gain the ease and speed you’re looking for.

Your brain is a learning machine

It’s your very nature to learn and grow. So, while children are generating myelin much quicker than adults, you can still learn new stuff and myelinate your own brain. All it needs it time, practice and attention. If you want to find out more about how practice improves skill, have a look at Daniel Coyle’s book, The Talent Code, or read this article from UCL.