Bounce: the myth of talent and the power of practice
Sportsman and journalist Matthew Syed makes an important contribution to the Nature v Nurture debate: his analysis has implications for teaching.
The talent myth
Almost all teachers think that children are capable of growth, but we usually hold the parallel belief that what makes them different form each other is their natural ability – or talent. Teaching is largely a matter therefore, of finding out what a child is “good at”, taking that talent, and then building on it. Syed is an elite athlete – a three times Commonwealth Gold medal winner and two times Olympian, but an elite athlete who does not believe in talent:
“The talent myth is not just widespread, but it is also powerfully destructive, robbing individuals and institutions of the motivation for change”
In Bounce, the myth of talent and the power of practice, his focus is sport, but if he’s right about “talent”, educators around the world have got some real thinking to do. Syed’s interest in sporting excellence began when he noticed unusual patterns of achievement in his own sport, table tennis. Remarkably, a disproportionate number of outstanding British table tennis players in the 1980s and 90s including Syed himself, came from the same very ordinary suburb of Reading in southern England. Although his brother was also a pretty good player, natural giftedness was an unlikely explanation for the success of all those who became his friends. As he examines other groups of elite achievers (middle distance runners; sprinters; world beating chess grandmasters) Syed has come to believe that there are factors at work that are more important than “raw” talent.
Firstly, like Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers, Syed thinks that high achievement is more to do with opportunity and practice than talent. In his own case, the opportunity came when his parents bought a table tennis table and put it in the garage, where he and his brother spent hours as children. At his primary school a teacher was a fanatical table tennis coach, spotted the interest, and made sure it was developed. Down the road a club opened that enabled local players to come and play with each other 24 hours a day. All the young club members had keys. By the time Syed was spotted as having international potential, he already had thousands of hours playing under his belt, supervised by people who knew what they were doing.
Syed argues that what marks out high achievers (think Mozart and Picasso as well as Federer) is not talent. Rather they have all had the right kind of opportunity to develop a particular set of skills through hours of what he calls “purposeful practice” often at a very early age. Just what motivates them to commit to the level of practice needed in a demanding regime is less clear cut. The fact is that they enjoy it, and do it, for whatever reason. If they are well coached, the motivation just grows. Drawing on the work of psychologists Anders Eriksson and Carol Dweck, Syed also argues that excellence is achieved by those who believe that achievement is in their own hands and who possess what Dweck calls the “growth mind-set”. They believe that they can improve as a result of their own efforts, rather than as a result of innate talent.
Implications for teachers
What implications does this analysis have for teachers? Firstly, it would seem to place the weight of evidence in the nature v nurture argument firmly on the side of nurture. If the brain is “plastic” and can change physically as children hone their skills, students have a correspondingly greater chance to improve performance and may not be such prisoners of what nature has endowed. The way we encourage students to specialise in certain subjects or activities would depend less on our judgement about their innate talent than on their interest and enjoyment – which in turn will motivate them to commit to “purposeful practice” and excel. Placing children in sets or groups dealing with material at different levels, would depend less on our judgement about “ability” than on their “experience” and previous learning opportunities. It would also be logical to follow the example of colleagues who are already using the ideas of Carol Dweck to praise children – not for intelligence, but for application and effort. Praising for effort, argues Dweck, motivates. Praising for being talented has the reverse effect.
Bounce suggests one more thing to me: those of us who advise students to pursue studies, sport and other activities because they enjoy something rather than because they are “good at it” have got things right: children are more likely to find the motivation to excel and commit to purposeful practice if they are doing what they enjoy doing.
Syed is not without his critics: he is a journalist and not a scientist. His understanding of genetics is very much that of the informed layman, and he is open to the charge of misunderstanding the complex nature of a very specialised area of science*. We may also still find a place for recognising “talent” in our own pedagogy – it’s really hard to let it go entirely. However, it is also hard to avoid his conclusion that peak performance is just not possible without the opportunity for purposeful practice under the eyes of a coach who knows what to do. As teachers, we should be taking note.
*See for example: