As an educator I’m fascinated by research into learning and one theme that keeps recurring is the notion that talent is not a birthright but something that is earned through hard work.
An intriguing project that has been getting attention on the Internet recently looks at what is possible in just one year. Under the title “Expert in a year” a table tennis coach by the name of Ben Larcombe has taken a young protege, Sam Priestly, and set off on a twelve month project to try and place that player in the top 250 players in England. The composite video that records the project is compelling viewing.
We watch the early days and, to a man, are thinking “I could beat him in a game”. As time rolls on we see how, with practice and training, Sam develops into a player that looks like a contender. But what does this all mean? How does it have any relation to learning and the work of schools?
In Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice, Matthew Syed take us on his own journey into the world of table tennis. In ‘Bounce’, Syed doesn’t completely rubbish talent but he does provide a persuasive argument for why natural talent is less important than purposeful practice. Often, we mistake this hard work for a natural talent. To anybody who has read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success the notion of talent being the product being a reward for hard work isn’t a new idea. Gladwell argues that with 10,000 hours of practice (he believes that with commitment you can reasonably assume to put in 1,000 hours per year and therefore the journey is one of 10 years) anybody can become an expert. What Matthew Syed does is bring that idea to life. Through his own experience of rising up the table tennis ranks and ultimately representing his country in the Olympic Games, he takes what Gladwell wrote about and makes it real. On the way to his conclusions he covers confidence, nerve and even race. Matthew Syed also notices that practice alone is not sufficient. What we need is targeted practice. Relevant practice.
Carol Dweck has then taken the work of Gladwell and Syed and in her book Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential she explores these concepts in an accessible but scientific manner. She coins the term “Growth Mindset” and compares this to a “Fixed Mindset”. Again, this is nothing new but it is presented in a different manner. Carol Dweck argues that if you have a fixed mindset you are of the belief that you cannot improve. Therefore as educators, our role is to help develop pupils who have a growth mindset. Students who believe that through hard work and effort they can improve are clearly better equipped to work in a modern world where adaptability and resilience are key characteristics to success.
Again, what does this mean to teachers and schools? All of the above can easily be applied to education, specifically to education taking place in schools. However, it isn’t something one teacher on a course or one teacher with a book can use to make positive change. No, rather it is work that needs to be a part of school culture. It needs the support and understanding of everyone working in the school. Only then will the work of the school be directed towards an effective and purposeful change. Fortunately, there is a point by point guide as to how this theory transfers into practice in schools. If you are a teacher or leader in school and have yet to read this book then are missing the single most significant collection of advice to motivate and engage your students. I offer it to you as a key part of any school development plan, a tool for school improvement and far more significant than “common core”, “curriculum 2014”, “OFSTED” or whatever other external political influences are trying to control the direction of education in your part of the world.
Mindsets in the classroom: Building a culture of success and student achievement in schools
by Mary Cay Ricci