Can you win at anything if you practise hard enough?

The UK has an attitude problem.  Our education is stuck in outdated and self-limiting ways of thinking.

Is ability in-built?  Do some fortunate few have a ‘math-gene’ or is sporting talent a ‘gift’?  Are some truly ‘gifted and talented’ whilst others consigned to fate by their genetics?  Not so, says Matthew Syed, international table tennis champ.

Rubbish!, people cry when Syed tells us that practice is all that it takes. He’s not alone; Gordon Stobart agrees. Professor at the UCL Institute of Education, he is author of a new book The Expert Learner:  Challenging the Myth of Ability.  You will enjoy reading this book – it offers hope for all.

Sports coaches know this secret to success … deliberative practice, focused on your weaknesses, given by experts, leads to real improvements.  This was the premise behind a fascinating experiment in London: could coach, Ben Larcombe, turn 24-year-old Sam Priestley (a self confessed non-sport type) in to a champ with a mere 500 hours of guided instruction? Only an hour and half a day. While the results were not world record breaking,  they were very promising.

What about becoming a world class memory champ in under a year?  Joshua Foer, a science writer took up this challenge and won. Focused, regular practice … of the right sort… it works!

So why is it that schools seem loath to believe this? Setting pupils,  streaming by ability, and selecting at age 11.  All these are common features in the UK educational world.  China offers an alternative to this where “there is a very widespread cultural belief that you get better with training, so people tend to persist longer.”  In the land of Silicon Valley, Wall Street and Hollywood, the secret to success is said to lie in conscientiousness, self control and a growth mindset.

Is the enemy of success, a blame culture and politicised education? Consider the calls of employers and university professors who decry falling educational standards. To believe them, schools must be in serious decline. While acknowledging that recent social economic factors do have an impact,  people are too keen to wash their hands of their own responsibilities to aid and assist learners.  Harvey Daniels and Stephen Pinker chart this tendency over time. Ever since 2400 BC, older adults have wailed in about falling educational standards and predict disaster:

1961: Recent graduates, including those with university degrees, seem to have no mastery of the language at all. They cannon construct a simple declarative sentence, either orally o in writing. They cannot spell common, every day words. punctuation is apparently no longer taught.

1917: From every college in the country goes up the cry, “Our freshmen can’t spell, can’t punctuate.” Every high school is in disrepair because its pupils are so ignorant of the merest rudiments.

1889: The vocabularies of the majority of high-school pupils are amazingly small…

1883: Unless the present progress of change is arrested…

1785: …degenerating very fast …

This ‘blame game’ keeps safe, policy makers and professors alike. The fault, if there is any, surely lies with parents and teachers – possibly even with children themselves. The peg is square, wails the round hole,  and must be reshaped!  Such discourses re-enforce notions of ability and futility: the great merry-go-round of ‘somebody else’s fault’… While divide-and-conquer was appropriate in The Art of War, it is hardly healthy in our schools. At its heart, this is a broken, fragmented and counter-productive education system. It weakens the very professionalism of all educators, even those most vocal, which is so critical to success. Failure, after all, is a stain upon us all.

UK academics have lead the world in the development of Assessment for Learning (AfL), at the heart of which is a focus on learning,  targeted timely feedback and the development of learning autonomy.  It is a shame that in our high-stakes, targets driven culture, that AfL has yet to create the revolution it promises. Perhaps the missing piece of the puzzle is professional collaboration, as modeled by Finland, Singapore and Ontario. Perhaps, we can even take a lesson from our very own London?

If we were to deeply embed these lessons throughout our education system, might not every child start their day impatient to go to school?

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