Practice

I passed my driving test in the summer of 1989. At the second attempt. It was a great day, banishing memories of the first time round, and the disappointment of failure at this liberating rite of passage.
My first attempt at the driving test met with unqualified failure (in every sense). It came at the end of a five day residential ‘crash’ course (unfortunate term) in North Wales. This entailed five days of intensive driving practice with a fellow learner and a world weary driving instructor called Dave. We pootled along the sea-front and down the quiet roads of Llandudno and Rhyll , negotiating the gentle traffic and sedate one-way system with fellow drivers whose average age was closer to 100 than 17. The week ended with a driving test on the Friday afternoon. My mother had found the driving school, whose advertising literature promised a 100% pass rate for 17 year old drivers. I was 17: and I was about to ruin their stats.
After five days driving experience four nights of driving talk, I failed the test on several key faults. Undue hesitation. Speeding in a 30 mile an hour limit. Failing to check my mirror before performing a manoeuvre. Stalling at a junction. It was a tragedy of motoring errors. I was a menace on the roads, most of all because the course had given me a false sense of confidence. Luckily – for other road users – I fell apart under test conditions and failed. And with this failure, I reluctantly entered the Hall of Fame of the Llandudno School of Motoring. I was the first 17 year old to fail.

Ten months later, I took my test again. And passed. This time round I was successful – and my efforts met with success because of three important reasons. One – I had practised over a longer period with a focus on becoming a decent driver, rather than getting through the test. Secondly, I had more varied, and more genuine road experience. Thirdly, I was wearing my lucky trainers. And my lucky pants.

It also happened that the driving test examiner was studying an Open University degree in the same subject that I was about to study at University and he had a cat called Leo. There was a sense of alignment. This is often the case with our successes. Things click into place: if you’ve put in the hours.
I’m lucky that I have a very short commute to work. On foot. This means that I don’t drive as much as some people do but I calculate that I must have racked up 150, 000 miles of driving since 1989. I have miles of driving experience. I’ve put in lots of practice. And yet, strangely, I am not a world-class driver. In fact, I’m a much worse driver than I was about 12 months after passing my test. Why?

The reason is this. I have developed bad habits; I’m crossing my hands when steering; driving with one hand; checking my mirror insufficiently often. I’ve forgotten aspects of the highway code. And, crucially, I am not striving to improve. I am simply carrying out a series of automatic actions, performed from muscle memory. My mind is not focused on the multiple task of driving. It is on other things: I’m thinking about work, day-dreaming or talking or, if travelling with my children, swivelling my head around to issue reprimands and unenforceable threats. In terms of driving, I am on autopilot. This is particular the case when on a familiar route. Miles can pass and suddenly you think – ‘I can’t remember anything from the last 10 minutes of driving’.

In his book, ‘Bounce’, Matthew Syed explores the difference between practice that demands deep concentration and application. The activities and occupations in which we truly grow are those which stretch us, demand more each time. The path to mastery is one with no clear end – there is not such thing as the perfect round of golf, piece of art, musical performance. Even finite tasks with finite answers can be performed more elegantly or more quickly: if we’re motivated by challenge.

Syed offers a simple example. Unscramble these anagrams:

FAHTER
HERFAT

FOOTBLAL
LBOFTOAL

DCOTOR
RTOCOD

OUTCOEM
ECMUTOO

TEACHRE
EERTACH

You’ll quickly have seen that the pairs of words are the same, but the second is more difficult. The letters are more scrambled and mixed.

“Research across domains shows that it is only by working at what you can’t do that you turn into the expert you want to become” Ericsson. What this implies is that it is not just the quantity of the practice, but also the quality of the practice and the challenge it exposes us to.
This applies to our academic work as much as it does any other activity in life. Working hard does not mean working smart. This crucial difference is one that we, as teachers, need to help you fully to understand, so that you can make the most of your studies.

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