David Epstein’s The Sports Gene has to be one of the two or three best books I’ve read in the last year. It may be one of the best researched and most intellectually challenging books I’ve ever read- mostly in terms of how it forced me to challenge (and change) my assumptions about nature versus nurture. It’s an amazing contribution the discourse about people development, genetics and athletics.
Others who have read it often interpret it to be an argument against practice, however, and as that’s something I believe in very strongly, they sometimes ask how I reconcile David’s book with Practice Perfect and my arguments about developing teachers. I DON’T think Epstein’s book is an argument against the power of practice and I don’t think David would see it that way either. But I also understand why people might think so. And either way there’s a lot to reconcile in an argument as weighty and complex as his if you’re thinking about the roles of training and “natural” skill in people development.
My UK colleague Alex Quigley, whose blog I regularly read and enjoy, recently posted a thoughtful piece in which he did some reconciling of the practice/biology tension… and in which he tried to plumb the depths of his own failure to become another Wayne Rooney. (Aside to Alex: Sorry the football career didn’t pan out but I’m pretty happy you do what you do and am confident the world more needs insightful educators like you than it needs another goal scorer. [wink])
Reading it caused me to put together a few initial thoughts on some of the differences between seeking to be a teacher and seeking to be Wayne Rooney or Usain Bolt. Here are a couple, taken from a comment I posted on his blog.
- There’s a difference between becoming very good at something–becoming good enough to be a highly successful professional–and becoming Rooney- whose performance places him in the top .001 percent of footballers. For a footballer to be truly elite, especially in a field where millions and millions of people seek a tiny number of places, he will need both genes AND practice and, as I think Epstein’s book shows, as the competition becomes fiercer and fiercer, the biological part becomes more and more critical as a differentiate-er. So seeking to be a great teacher and seeking to be one of the top 50 soccer players among the millions in England are different endeavors and the proportion of the outcome influence by genetics is fundamentally different. Alex, though he doesn’t think about it this way, probably DID practice himself into becoming a capable footballer. (When and if he starts coaching his kids he’ll see how much he knows and how valuable it is)
- So the question is: Can you become a very very good teacher with a lot of deliberate practice? Yes, i think. Can you do that pretty much regardless of the hand genetics has dealt you. Yes. (Perhaps there are a few exceptions but they are rare). Is it the best way to get better? Yes, i think. Are there still probably some people who are naturals? Sure. And if we needed five or ten teachers to be the national teaching team for the whole country, the degree of genetic predisposition would probably matter a lot more than it does.
- But we don’t need one teacher who is better than every other teacher in, say, New York City to succeed. We need thousands of very good teachers from New York City. For a society that needs thousands of excellent teachers the results of practice are remarkable. In fact even if we only needed two teachers, practice would still probably matter- It’s genes AND practice even for Wayne Rooney. The questions is really a matter of how much of one and how much of the other in various settings. But my point is that the degree to which genetics matters varies massively from setting to setting. If you are willing to practice your teaching half as much as you practiced the sport you loved growing up, as a profession, we ought to be able to make you very very successful. If we can’t, we have lost- and our loss is doubly sad and ironic because we are supposed to be the profession that’s about teaching people to do things. Do we really think we can teach people to be surgeons but not teach them to be teachers?
- Finally, even if there is a genetic effect somewhere in determining teaching excellence–i.e. if there are “naturals”–it’s assuredly far smaller than the comparable effect of genetics in sports because of the far more limited role of physiology–ie the length of your legs and the percentage of fast twitch muscles etc.–in teaching. The mind, or course, is far more plastic than the body and people change their fundamental thinking and behavior patterns all the time. In fact part of the power of practice is that it changes the mind, both in it’s actions and thoughts and in it’s actual physiology. If you’re a pitcher, all the practice in the world won’t make the ratio of your forearm to your upper arm different. (Read Epstein’s book and you’ll understand that allusion.)
In short, I think it’s fascinating to look at the role of practice in sports but there are also some key differences between it and the teaching profession that we need to be aware of.