Are we the way we are because of our natures or is talent just the product of hard work? Which matters more natural ability of practice?

A few years ago my mother reminded me of my struggles with learning to read. Apparently, one of my primary teachers had written home with the bad news that I was mentally subnormal and would probably never learn to read. My mum wasn’t having any of that. She took me out of school and spent all day every day forcing me to read the entire Janet and John reading scheme. My memories of this are pretty murky but the image of those grinning, flaxen-haired goody-goodies burns brightly. I hated their parents, their friends and even their dog with a pure and abiding passion. One snapshot of memory that is still crystal clear is the revelation of realising that the word friend, which had seemed to make no logical sense at all, could be read as fry + end. To this day, this is what I bring to mind whenever I have to spell it. A few weeks later she sent me back to school and said to my teacher, “Here you are, he can read now.” I never looked back.

Whenever the going got tough and I felt like screaming with exasperation, my well-meaning mother would remind me that ‘practice makes perfect’. It turns out – as I’ve taken great delight in telling her – this is wrong. Practice does not make perfect; practice makes permanent. What we repeatedly do we get good at, and if we practice doing the wrong things, we’ll get better at doing things badly. So, while practice is certainly necessary for us to automatise procedural knowledge and acquire expertise, we need to do more than simply repeat what we’ve always done if we want to make sure we’re not just consolidating mistakes and misconceptions.

But how much difference does practice make? I tend to accept that anyone can get at anything, but how much better? Anders Ericsson argues in Peak that the difference in the performance of experts can be accounted for by totting up how many hours of deliberate practice they’ve put in. Others disagree. Estimates of most human traits suggests that at least half the variation between individuals is attributable to heritability, but that the rest is down to differences in the environment. This is horribly oversimplified but essentially, innate abilities matter, but so do our choices and what happens to us.

Clearly my early inability to read was caused by a lack of the wrong sort of practice. I’m not sure how able I am at reading now – I think it’s fair to say I’m pretty good – but whatever innate reading ability we might have, reading is not ‘natural’, written text was invented less than 5000 years ago. It took my mum to frogmarch through the laborious process of learning how to do it in order for whatever latent talent I might have possessed to emerge. I dread to think what would have happened to me had she not been willing or able to do so. But does than mean that anyone, with enough of the right kind of practice can become as skilled as anyone else?

Almost certainly not. When environmental factors are broadly similar, genes account for the vast majority of the difference in reading ability. If two individuals put in the same amount of practice any differences between their performance must either be due to their genes or luck. But it isn’t even a s simple as that. It turns out – and this is rather obvious once it’s pointed out – that if all human traits are at least partly heritable, so must our ability and inclination to practice. The ability to engage in hours of deliberate practice requires high conscientiousness – one of the ‘big five’ personality traits. Personality becomes less heritable as we age. When we’re young, our inherited dispositions launch us in a particular direction but as we try to make our way in the word we’re forced to adjust to societal expectations and cultural norms which restrict the effects of heritability. In our efforts to fit and adapt to our particular niches which become less ourselves.

So what does this mean? Well, as we can’t do anything to change children’s genetic make up, the only possible path to improving their life chances is via the environment. If the environment is all we can affect, it’s all that matters. Practice is just one aspect of the environment we can alter; whilst some children may be born able to learn more quickly than others, what you know is entirely a product of your environment.

Here then are five principles for teaching children in a way that ensures equality of access to a desirable education environment:

  1. Work to create and maintain strong social norms where it’s ‘cool to be clever’ and working hard is seen as natural.
  2. Treat all children as it they can achieve the highest standards. This may not be true, but treating some children as less able, than others ensures that they will know less and therefore be less able. As Graham Nuthall put it, “Ability is the consequences not the cause of what happens in the classroom.”
  3. If a procedure can be performed automatically (decoding, handwriting, grammar, basic number facts etc.) it ought to be practised to the point of automaticity. Don’t practice until children can do it, practice to the point where they can’t not do it. These automatised procedures are the basis of domain-specific expertise.
  4. If a procedure can’t be performed automatically (essay writing for example) instead concentrate on what you want to them to be able to think about. Only if children encounter powerful factual knowledge will they be able, in the words of Basil Bernstein, “to think the unthinkable and the not yet thought”.
  5. The more children know, the better they’ll be able to think. Use the most effective methods to help children understand new concepts (worked examples) and recall important semantic information (retrieval practice) before giving them the opportunity to solve increasingly difficult problems with increasing independence.

There are, of course, other ways to approach the project of education, but if you care about social justice then it’s important to know that these suggestions represent the best ways.

The best things come in fives:

Greg Ashman’s Five principles of education

Carl Hendrick’s Five Things I wish I knew when I started teaching

James Theobald’s Five Worst Education Arguments

Shaun Alison’s Five reason I like this Post-it

Greg Ashman again: Five education ideas applied to alternative contexts

And some of mine:

5 things every new (secondary) teacher should know about reading

5 things every new (secondary) teacher should know about writing

Five things every new teacher needs to know about behaviour