The Power of Practice

It was Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers, as far as I can tell, who first came up with the notion of the ‘10,000-hour rule’, the one which suggests that success in any sphere of life is almost entirely down to sheer hard work – along, perhaps, with being in the right place at the right time. It’s also an idea which is taken up by Mathew Syad, the three-times Commonwealth table-tennis champion in his best-seller BounceI was particularly struck by his debunking of the myth of the ‘child prodigy’ or the ‘born genius’, which I’m sure most of us have bought into at some stage, it being such a compelling idea (the provocative subtitle of the book is ‘The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice).

How often do you hear people say that they were always hopeless at spelling or that they couldn’t do maths, the implication being that these ‘talents’ were something you were either born with or not, and they had just happened to be unlucky? For Syad, the idea that the ability to calculate is predetermined at birth is the ultimate expression of the ‘talent’ theory of expertise – we marvel at the feats of those individuals who are able to multiply long strings of digits in a few seconds, as if they are a freak of nature. Yet, according to Syad, there is no magic and no mystery.

“But now consider how much more difficult it is to keep track of a narrative while reading a book. There are tens of thousands of words in the English language, and they are used in new and unforeseen combinations in every sentence of every page. To understand a new sentence, the reader must not only understand its specific meaning, he must also be able to integrate it with all the sentences previously read. He must, for example, remember previously mentioned objects and people in order to resolve references to pronouns.

This is a memory task of almost unimaginable dimensions. And yet most of us are able to get to the last word of the book – comprising hundreds of pages and tens of thousands of words – without once losing the thread of the narrative. The experience we have clocked up as ‘language-users’ enables us to do this in just the same way that the hours clocked up as ‘numbers-users enables mathematicians to get to the end of a multi-digit multiplication by keeping track of the ‘narrative of the calculation.

The difference between calculators and the rest of us, then, is that calculators have spent lives immersed in the vocabulary of numbers, while the rest of us have wimped out by using electronic calculators.”

This is an interesting analogy – and I’m still trying to work out whether it stands up entirely – but it fits quite neatly with my own thinking about the importance of narrative AS learning, as well as its importance IN learning ie that all learning takes place through the creation and sharing of narratives or ‘stories’ (of course we are always sympathetic to theories which chime with our own thinking) . It also makes me wonder whether, when we are quick to criticize those who promise young people that they are capable of becoming anything they choose to be,  instead of dismissing the idea out of hand, perhaps we should simply advise them to ‘remember to tell them about the 10,000 hours!’

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Creating Confident Individuals

Thanks to Laurie O’Donnel for reminding me in his recent blogpost of what a significant text Carol Dweck’s Mindset is, especially in the context of the four capacities of Curriculum for Excellence, and in particular the aim to develop confident individuals. To many people, and perhaps particularly to Scots, “confident individuals” has connotations of arrogance or cockiness, characteristics which we have always derided, and rightly so. However, as Dweck demonstrates in Mindset -subtitled The New Psychology of Success – having confidence as an individual is much more about having what she calls a “growth mindset” rather than a “fixed mindset”. mindset1

Students with a fixed mindset often give up easily because they assume they have been dealt a losing hand, usually reinforced by people telling them they are dumb or stupid. Even for very able students, a fixed mindset can lead to failure: in the fixed mindset effort is not something to be proud of, it is something which casts doubt on your abilities. Teachers with a fixed mindset bemoan the fact that they have been given “the bottom set again” and believe that no matter what they do it will make little or no difference whatsoever, so have often given up on some students before they even meet them.

With a growth mindset on the other hand, young people learn that effort is in itself rewarding, and that while some people are apparently able to do some things with little effort, others take longer and may have to work harder to get there. It isn’t difficult to think of examples – in sport, music or any number of activities – of people who have shown early talent only for it to remain frustratingly unfulfilled, while others who develop later go on to more sustained levels of success. In the growth mindset challenge is welcomed, because it is the effort which matters, not the ability. Ability is something which can be learned – you don’t have to be born that way.