Not perfect, but better

It has been an important source of our culture’s collective wisdom, advice passed on for generations and even the punch line of jokes: A man lost in the concrete canyons of Manhattan asks a local, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall? To which the New Yorker replies: Practice man, practice!” Which recalls for me this sound byte from my childhood: “Billy, did you practice your saxophone?” Mom’s voice still rings in my ears, recalling a daily chore I never enjoyed. Dad, in turn, would always chime in with the old adage, “Practice makes perfect you know.”

It is great and timeless advice that, I must confess, was largely lost on me back then, laboring over repetitive scales and fingering exercises that were my only hope of ever becoming a really good instrumentalist. While my saxophone days are long over (thanks to not practicing!), the wisdom of my parents has only proved more valid the older I get. And when I see how education has changed in my lifetime—and not always for the better—I realize that one element so essential to learning that has been lost, or at least disparaged along the way, is practice.

I find this all rather ironic. When it comes to sports there seems to be no question that practice—hours and hours of it, in season and off season, in camps and on club teams with private coaches—is the key to individual and team success. The same is true for those serious about music, theater or dance. Our summer camps are full of young people doing one thing over and over again: practicing. Yet when we ask students to do homework, which is essentially the chance to practice math, reading, writing or spelling, we are told that there are better ways to learn. Tell that to a successful football coach, Olympian in training or aspiring actor.

I can see why our popular culture has turned away from practice as an effective means of learning in school. Practice is tedious. It isn’t entertaining. Practice is WORK. The no pain, no gain mantra that drives sports and health enthusiasts seems to fall on deaf ears, however, when applied to the important reasoning, communication, and computational skills our kids will need if they are to be informed, successful, and responsible citizens of this country. The truth is the same for athletes as it is for artists and scholars: practice and hard work are not often fun. They don’t give us instant gratification. But without them the real worthwhile goals in life—be they athletic, artistic or academic—will never be more than pipedreams.

Professional golfer Gary Player once made this interesting observation about the secret to his success: “The more I practice, the luckier I get.” Larry Bird, collegiate and professional basketball phenom, used to practice for over 2 hours before each game, taking over 300 shots—and he did this after he was anointed as one of the very best to ever play the game! These are but two sports stars whose success has been linked to their commitment to practicing. There is no doubt they both had some talent. But what really set them apart was that they learned, at an early age, that the difference between being OK and being great lay in making friends with one of life’s most important disciplines: PRACTICE! But how much practice does it take to be great at something?

Noted author Malcolm Gladwell has spent years studying what it takes to achieve mastery in a skill or talent. His conclusion? More than raw talent or lucky breaks, it requires hours and years to reach the levels of excellence that make one an Olympic champion, an expert in a particular field, or a virtuoso performer. How many hours? At least 10,000 hours of practice, equivalent to 3 hours a day, 7 days a week, for almost 10 years. Wow. That doesn’t leave too much time for texting, movies, or just goofing off, does it? How do you get to Carnegie Hall? How do you get to Harvard? How do you become a doctor, direct a business, lead a church, run a household?

Since coming to Ascension Academy in 2008 I have been inspired by the words of legendary football coach—and high school chemistry teacher--Vince Lombardi. He was instrumental in turning the Green Bay Packers into winners of five NFL championships as they flourished under his commitment to “the relentless pursuit of perfection.” As you might expect, long, hard, repetitive and focused practices were essential to his program. He knew, as we must, that perfection in most endeavors is impossible. But the pursuit of perfection is a lifelong discipline and passion that distinguishes those who achieve from those who merely dream.

I’ve been told by students and parents that Ascension Academy is hard. I think this is because of the stress we put on practice. Our students practice learning grammar rules in catchy jingles that we reinforce with song and dance. They practice doing math and scientific calculations, they practice reading, writing and conjugating, both in class and in nightly homework assignments. They practice what they’re learning by reviewing for tests and calling forth what they know in preparing for and taking semester exams. They practice in school, out of school, on weekdays and on weekends. This isn’t busy work nor is it a relic from a bygone era of educational theory. It is an acceptance of the fact that most of what we do well in life comes as the result of talent, determination, and practice. And when we stop practicing, or practice only what and when we feel like it, we generally lose those skills and talents that once gave us so much promise. Sounds like me and the saxophone, somewhere short of Carnegie Hall.

Athletes, dancers, musicians and actors know all of this to be true. Which makes me wonder why do so many in our society think learning in school requires any less. I’m so glad that the educators who set the curriculum for Ascension—the students who buy in and the families who support schools like ours—understand the importance of practice in the educational process. We know that practice will not make us perfect. But it will always make us better.