If you want to learn how to make bread you'll hear people tell you "practice makes perfect". If you want to learn how to play snooker and score a 147 break you'll hear other people say "practice makes perfect".
The saying "practice makes perfect" is so commonly used that it's almost become a throw away mantra that doesn't mean anything other than "keep trying and you'll get there"
I've heard many driving instructors using this phrase, I've heard trainee instructors use it, and yes, I've used it myself in the past, but always with a careful thought about what the phrase really means and the implications of not considering it properly.
It's common for driving instructors to say (or think) "practice makes perfect" but to not consider the implications.
If you consider practice and what it really means, particularly in conjunction with the Conscious Incompetence model of learning, you'll realise what an important topic this is.
Driving instructors really do have the power to influence a whole generation of new qualified drivers. Don't you think it's worth making sure that we do it right?
None of us are perfect, we all make mistakes now and then, but here I want to discuss why practice does not always make perfect.
No Practice Is Better Than Bad Practice
You will instinctively do what you've practised the most. Make sure you practice the right things. Practice is a fantastic thing. It helps us to develop coordination and it helps us to develop the decision making skills that we need for driving. I can't argue with the principal that the more practice a learner gets the better, what I will argue with is that complete lie that all practice is good practice. It isn't. Some practice is just downright poor and doesn't help the learner at all.
A great example of this is mirror checks. I've done quite a lot of standards check training with instructors and I've done lots of driving instructor training all over the UK, and it's so incredibly common for those instructors to be completely ignorant of the fact that their learners aren't checking the mirrors at all. If the learner does check them, it's often through fear and self-preservation if they think they themselves may be in danger, but often it's not done as part of a proper plan by using the mirror, signal, manoeuvre routine.
When I've mentioned this problem to the instructors later, a common response is to accept the issue and express surprise because they hadn't noticed, but then to say something like "It's OK, I'm sure they'll get better with practice"
The trouble here is that, if you're allowing your learners not to check the mirrors, you may as well be positively instructing them not to check them. You're re-inforcing the fact that mirror checks are not necessary on each and every lesson.
The learner is almost teaching themselves to drive.
The psychomotor functions of the brain and the nervous connections to our limbs are completely unaware of and unconcerned about mirror, signal, manoeuvre, how to control the pedals or anything else unconnected with basic survival. Our internal physical systems have evolved to learn skills that are needed for survival by imitation and repetition.
As far as coordination is concerned, allowing learners not to check the mirrors by not realising that they're not checking them, can be worse than giving them no practice at all. You're effectively teaching them not to drive properly, even though you may have the best intentions in the world.
By repeating these incorrect routines, habits and movements over and over, a learners coordination and nervous connections develop to carry out that same routine.
In a stressful environment like the driving test, our learners often do many things on 'auto pilot'. They do and repeat what they've done the most. You're doing them no favours if what they've done the most is the wrong thing.
Practice Does Not Always Make Perfect. Practice Makes Permanent
Read that title carefully. Practice absolutely does not always make perfect. Practice absolutely does make permanent.
Bad practice makes bad driving permanent.
Repetition is the key here. Repeating anything strengthens that particular skill so the way we repeat it becomes the way we'll do it in the long term.
It's long been known, and is an undisputed fact, that repetition of any physical movement causes observable physical changes in the way nerves are connected and the electrical signals are transmitted from the brain to the muscles controlling those physical movement.
What's simply incredible is that it's been shown time and time again that even just thinking about a physical movement or doing it completely out of the ordinary context (see the tutorial on practising without a car) can cause just those same physical changes.
This is the way Olympic athletes prepare. As well as performing the actual movements they need, they also perform visualization techniques. They simply picture themselves performing their sport perfectly, reacting in absolutely the right way. Those reactions and movements become set in and can be relied upon when the situation gets stressful.
If it's good enough for athletes, it's good enough for us.
Remember, what you practice is what you'll reinforce. What you reinforce is what you'll make permanent. Make sure that what you make permanent is the right thing.
Good Practice Makes Perfect
As part of my CBT degree, in the personal coaching modules, I researched this field of learning. I read a very good analogy by a professor of psychology who said that, before practising any physical movement, the signals from the brain to the muscles were rather like being in a slow car on a crowded country lane with our way blocked at every turn. The electrical nervous system has to fight its way through uncharted territory to reach its destination.
He said that each time we practice those movements, the way for those signals is not only remembered, its improved and the nerves are actually widened and change to allow the signals to pass. After much practice those signals are no longer a slow car on a packed country lane, they're like a Formula One car on rocket fuel driving along an empty 10 lane free-way.
The point he was making is that practice and repetition creates a super-fast signal path to allow those coordinated movements we need for driving.
Once that electrical super highway becomes set in place, it's a bit of a task to go back and change it. That's why it's just so important to make sure you practice the right things, the right way, right from the start.
So, good practice, carrying out the correct routines in the same way over and over again is what is required to build those nervous connections from the brain to the limbs, and to make sure that when we're in a stressful situation like a driving test, we instinctively do the right thing.
If you're a leaner or a trainee instructor, you need to get the correct routines down and to practice them until you can do them without thought. If you're an instructor you need to constantly think about what you're teaching your learners or trainees. Allowing them to repeat the same incorrect actions over and over again is not doing them any favours.