Bounce by Matthew Syed
(Fourth Estate, £8.99, 2010)
(This is the first in a regular series reviewing books outside of the realm of education, and looking at the impact they could have in a learning environment.)
The myth of talent and the power of practice
This is a very powerful and interesting book, with a sporting background as its basis, which looks at the evidence for and against talent. It draws on the previous writing by Malcolm Gladwell, which ascribes to the idea that talent is a created concept, and what is seen as talent is actually at least 10,000 hours of practice. Syed’s writing is however much more involving than Gladwell’s at times, and he takes the reader through the concept of talent versus practice, then pinpoints several key features of practice.
10,000 hours of doing anything will not make you an expert he reasons, using driving as an argument, and the practice he recommends is one of focussed, intense practice, driven by coaches who give intense support for areas which are outside the comfort zone of the athlete. He argues that those tricky shots that David Beckham or Tiger Woods take are actually not so unusual to them due to their level of training and focus.
The main tenet which is carefully explored in both anecdote and psychological study is that of a fixed mindset versus a growth mindset. The fixed mindset is one which believes in talent, whereas a growth mindset accepts that it takes practice to improve a skill, and that nothing is impossible, simply ‘out of reach.’
The book is a very easy read – that is not to disparage the quality of the writing, but to highlight how well the material has been chosen for the reader. Although this book is from a sports/business background, the connections to Education are enormous.
The Management Angle
The demand for Gifted and Talented Policies within schools defines a school on a paper sense as having a fixed mindset. This then has the potential to establish a philosophy of talented and non-talented pupils. While it can be argued that there are children who are stronger at some subjects than others, it is always interesting to examine why this is the case, what the origin of this strength might be. Bounce contends that with enough focus, anyone can become talented. How this can be put into Policy, and then embedded in the curriculum, is a challenge for any SMT. The main message for management from ‘Bounce’ would be to stretch all pupils , regardless of their starting point, but to underline this by eliminating the concept of failure and doubt. As Syed says, doubt reduces ambition.
The Teacher Angle
One area which is incredibly relevant to teachers is the language used to develop a growth mindset. Syed argues that we should verbally reward the achievement rather than the overarching skill – ‘You really nailled those tables’ rather than ‘You’re so good at maths.’ The very subtle change in language can have a lasting impact in terms of the athlete’s/pupil’s perspective of their ability; the logic being that you get told you are good at Maths often enough, and you can become nervous if you tackle something you feel you ‘should’ be able to achieve.
The Pupil Angle
A perception of people being ‘born with talent’ comes from an early age, and is encouraged in popular media. Whether or not we believe that this is the case, it is crucial to instill confidence in pupils that there is no limit to potential, but that lengthy, repetitive and sometimes uncomfortable practice and dedication needs to be put into place in order to progress.
‘If you don’t know what you are doing wrong, you can never know what you are doing right.’ – Chen Xinhua, Chinese Table-Tennis Coach
What about your learning environment is limited by a ‘fixed mindset’? Where was this embedded?