The Most Important Moment of Practice

keystoneQuestion: What’s the most important part of a practice session?

  • A) Start
  • B) Finish
  • C) Middle

Before you answer, consider the following story:

A few years ago, students at New Dorp School of Staten Island, NY, were struggling. Test scores were down, dropouts were up. School leaders tried a variety of methods — new technology, new teachers, new programs, you name it. Nothing worked.

Then, in 2008, New Dorp’s leaders came to a realization: students were not failing because they lacked intelligence. They were failing because they lacked the ability to construct arguments, build ideas, and distinguish essential information from nonessential information.

So New Dorp embarked on a bold experiment — they targeted these skills by building the school curriculum around analytic writing, using a proven technique called the Hochman Program. As Peg Tyre reports in The Atlantic:

The Hochman Program would not be un­familiar to nuns who taught in Catholic schools circa 1950. Children…are explicitly taught how to turn ideas into simple sentences, and how to construct complex sentences from simple ones by supplying the answer to three prompts—but, because, and so. They are instructed on how to use appositive clauses to vary the way their sentences begin. Later on, they are taught how to recognize sentence fragments, how to pull the main idea from a paragraph, and how to form a main idea on their own.  

When speaking, [students] were required to use specific prompts outlined on a poster at the front of each class.

  • “I agree/disagree with ___ because …”
  • “I have a different opinion …”
  • “I have something to add …”
  • “Can you explain your answer?”

It worked incredibly well. The kids at New Dorp not only got better at writing, they got better at every subject, to the point that New Dorp is now a model for what some are calling the Writing Revolution. (Read Peg’s story here.)

Here’s why: analytic writing is a keystone skill. It is the foundation on which other skills can be built — literally, inside the brain. Improving at analytic writing allowed the New Dorp students to improve at math, science, and social studies because it supports those skills in the same way that a keystone supports a foundation.

Every talent has its keystone skills. Think of a baseball hitter’s ability to identify the speed and location of a pitch. Or a violinist’s ability to precisely match pitch. Or a salesperson’s ability to connect quickly on an emotional level. Or a soccer player’s ability to swiftly “read” a game.

All of these are keystone skills on which larger skills are built. They are exponentially more important to performance than any other skill. After all, it doesn’t matter how beautiful a baseball swing you have, if you can’t tell where the ball is located. It doesn’t matter how great a salesperson you are, if you can’t connect to people.

The strange thing is, keystone skills are easily overlooked and under-practiced. Most of us approach performance the same way New Dorp did in the early days — we try lots of things, in random order, and hope we get better

Instead of merely hoping, you should be highly strategic about planning practice sessions around keystone skills. Spend time analyzing the skill you want to build. What’s the single most important element? What is the move on which all your other moves depend? Then structure your practice around the keystone.

To return to our original question: What’s the most important part of a practice session?

The answer is D) None of the above.

Because the most important time of a practice session is before it begins, when you take time to figure out the answer to a simple question: what’s your keystone skill?