Marching to a Different Drummer

Adding to the discussion about whether children need to work harder to achieve the standards set by the Common Core curriculum is a renewal of the controversy over innate ability vs. practice.  A recent paper in the journal “Psychological Science” concludes that contrary to widely held belief, deliberate practice is not as important as has been argued in the past.

This meta-analysis of the domains in which deliberate practice has been investigated showed a great variance in its importance, with the greatest impact at only 28% in performance for games.  For education, the importance of practice was a mere 4%.  The authors of the study conclude that practice is absolutely necessary to achieve expertise but not as important compared to inborn gifts.

In thinking about education it would be interesting to know if practice and repetition are differentiated in any way.  Surely repetition is an important part of learning.  Young children like to hear the same story read over and over again.  Yet we know that new ideas and new information need to be presented many times in various ways to be understood and retained.  This suggests that creative teaching is as important, if not more so, than mere repetition – or practice.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his book “Outliers”, gave currency to what he called the “10,000 hour rule”, the idea that success in any field is largely a matter of practicing a specific task for about 10,000 hours.  On the other hand, he also tried to show that there are many more variable in an individual’s success then either innate ability or their own efforts.  This certainly rings true at a time when the inequality of opportunity for children depending on where they live, the parents they have and the schools they attend has increasingly been noted.

Important questions here are what level of expertise is being considered and how does this relate to learning and achievement generally.  Are we talking about winning the gold medal in Olympics, finding the cure for cancer or scoring 800 on the SATs?  Implied in the argument about talent vs. practice is the idea of competition or winning.  It may be true that maximizing inborn talent to become a star in any field requires hard work and practice along with talent.  But how does this relate to a goal of becoming educated or attaining a skill level that can enhance the pleasure of an activity?

Ken Robinson, in his book “The Element”, defines the element most significant for individual development as the point at which natural talent meets personal passion.  Although the examples he gives are of people who have become stars in their respective fields, his deeper point is that in each instance their talents were not nurtured by the usual educational channels but by their own passionate pursuit. 

Robinson’s goal is an educational system that would recognize and nurture the innate ability of each individual rather than impose a one size fits all system of teaching and learning.  This may be a difficult goal to achieve when dealing with large numbers of children, but it embodies a different philosophy than a system that measure success in competitive terms.    

The argument about which is more important, talent or practice, seems to suggest that the most valued goal is to become a star.  This reflects our current culture in which stardom and celebrity are rewarded not only with extravagant admiration and attention but financially as well.  Individual worth is too often measured and rewarded in terms of the ability to achieve such status.  The end result is valued more than the significance or importance of the achievement.  We see that in the lengths people go to gain celebrity, or notoriety, unfortunately at times in destructive ways.

All of this reduces the problem to an either/or question.  It is hard not to wonder if the talent vs. practice question is really the one on which to focus.  Almost all children have some particular innate ability, and the real challenge is how to acknowledge that ability in a way that enables them to reach their own potential. 

Too often individual innate ability is not recognized because it doesn’t fit the existing educational model or requirements.  At the other extreme, an indication of a particular talent leads to the attempt to impose Gladwell’s “10,000 hour rule” and practicing to achieve a certain kind of success takes over to the detriment of other values or goals.  It is obvious that practice, or the need to work at something, is part of developing valuable skills that will provide rewards to the individual.  It is how those rewards are defined that can make the difference.

As parents we play a big role in defining those rewards.  We can also recognize when our children may march to a different drummer and support them in realizing those differences in the best way possible for each of them.