Practice vs. talent: Five principles for effective teaching

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

19 Responses to Practice vs. talent: Five principles for effective teaching

  1. I totally agree but have one small point I would request further clarification upon. When you speak of automaticity in grammar, what do you mean exactly? Being able to speak and write in grammatically correct standard English or being able to automatically know that apart of speech is the past continuous or a relative clause? I understand if it is the first, less so the second.

    • David Didau says:

      Well, definitely the first, but I’d also like children to recognises basics like whether a word is a verb or a noun without having to think.

      • Yes I’d agree with that, as long as it was the more obvious word classes as so forth. I don’t know if you’ve seen the year 6 spag sats test. It’s really hard in parts even for me and I’m old enough to have had a trad education and done Latin.

        • David Didau says:

          Not only have I seen them, I regularly use them in training with secondary schools to make them aware of what children are learning in primary and how to harness the important bits and abandon the guff. I have 3 broad areas of grammar that all students (and teachers) ought to be familiar with:

          1.How words work
          • Parts of speech
          • Subject verb agreement
          • Tense

          2.Clear sentences
          • The elements of a sentence
          • Types of sentence
          • Commas (listing and bracketing)

          3.Coherent texts
          • Topic sentences
          • Paragraphs
          • Introductions & conclusions

  2. seonaid says:

    Interesting that personality becomes less heritable as we age, while IQ becomes more heritable. I wonder why that would be?

    • Pique Boo says:

      I think the answer lies within David’s comment on being forced to fit into society e.g. it seems to be quite well-established that age makes people much more likely to pick socially acceptable answers on self-report personality tests.

      My question is whether the decrease reflects real personality change, or dutiful suppression of real personality when you’re out in public? My tenner is that it’s more the latter, because of experience of facades crumbling under stress.

      • David Didau says:

        I dunno – I reckon “dutiful suppression” quickly becomes habit. Our ‘real personalities’ emerge as much from habit as from genetic differences and this increases as we age.

  3. Amazing that your mother could take you out of school to teach you to read! My parents sent me to a different school to the one I was allocated (my primary teacher must have written to the head and I just turned up on the first day of term) and the truancy officer was round like a shot. Nowadays she would be fined for taking you on an unauthorized holiday – but perhaps she arranged with the school to take you out to teach you to read? Or maybe you were at a private school?
    I agree about environment (my parents clearly did as well – hence the school change) and practice, though I am assuming that automaticity with grammar means usage rather than being able to parse automatically (although that might be useful too).

  4. Luc Kumps says:

    Perhaps this will be of interest to some readers:
    http://faculty.london.edu/arattan/main/CV_files/Rattan%20Savani%20Naidu%20Dweck%20(2012).pdf

    While the “traditional” growth / fixed mindset is about the belief that most people can(‘t) grow from their current level, the universal / non universal mindset is about the belief that (not) everyone can become highly proficient. The two mindsets have both separate and interacting effects. As with the traditional variant, there are cultural differences (e.g. in this research, the Indian participants believed in the universal potential for high intelligence more than did Americans).

  5. Luc Kumps says:

    For one or another reason “.pdf” was not taken as a part of the link. Copy/Paste will help.
    Or click this: http://bit.ly/2pTXqhO
    (I hope)

  6. […] ‘five things’ included in the title (Carl Hendrick, James Theobald, Greg Ashman & David Didau) I thought I would pick five things I liked about this […]

  7. Mark Feathestone-Witty says:

    For years, I’ve been fascinated by the nature/nurture debate. And by the affect either might have on the attitude of teachers, who are inherently interested in change. There has been an interesting development ,which is readily accessible by reading David Shenk’s book ‘The Genius in All of Us’ with a sub-title that’s reminiscent of one of David’s books, but this time ‘Why Everything You’ve Been Told About Genetics, Talent, and IQ Is Wrong’. It’s the first book I’ve read where half the book is cited sources. It’s also the first book I read that introduced me to developing field of epigenetics. Put brutally simply: it appears the environment can alter your genetic make-up.

  8. […] Practice vs. talent: five principles for effective teaching, by David […]

  9. Jan says:

    Mark! You were my English teacher nearly 50 years ago!!
    That would be Effect, by the way…
    I’m a TA in Guildford – St Peter’s
    James Webb

  10. […] We were considering whether the best strategy would be to ask the question again, what we at TPF call, ‘anchoring’ (‘So, is the mind the same as the brain?’) Practice vs. talent: Five principles for effective teaching. […]

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