Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

08.02.14Reconciling Practice with David Epstein’s The Sports Gene

Sports GeneDavid 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.

10 Responses to “Reconciling Practice with David Epstein’s The Sports Gene”

  1. Max Tuefferd
    August 2, 2014 at 4:04 pm

    I’m not arguing against all that you have written here, but…do people change their fundamental thinking and behavior all the time? I’m not so sure…I think we can all relate to how hard it is to break a habit of mind, or a physical habit or a routine.

    • David Didau
      August 2, 2014 at 10:26 pm

      I change my thinking whenever I encounter new information. The question of heritability is a case in point. I haven’t read David Epstein but reading Kathryn Asbury’s G is for Gene caused a seismic shift in how I think about practice, and education generally, as did reading Willingham, Hirsch, Bjork and many others.

      The point about great teaching vs heritability is counter-intuitive. In a perfect education system, the only difference between students would be due to genetic heritability (shared environment – parental influence – almost always wears off entirely by adulthood) and the role of school and teaching (non-shared environment) should be to maximise genetic potential. I go into more detail on this here:

      A fascinating debate.

      • Doug_Lemov
        August 2, 2014 at 10:39 pm

        Thanks for weighing in David. Fascinating. can you say more about “shared environment – parental influence – almost always wears off entirely by adulthood”?

        • David Didau
          August 2, 2014 at 10:49 pm

          This is deeply troubling for us as parents but it seems to be largely in very many different areas of human achievement. Adoption studies and twin studies suggest that shared environment (factors shared by siblings) may have very powerful effects in childhood but reduce to almost 0% by adulthood. This seems counter to our experiences because we see our habits & values emerge in our children (sometimes to our chagrin) but these are almost completely down to heritability. Non- shared environment (of which school is a good example) has a much more lasting effect it would appear but particularly because certain skills/attributes have to be taught; no one just picks up mathematics from scratch.

          I’ve mainly looked at the effects of heritability and environment on reading (this is an interesting study: and it seems to show that early advantages of reading instruction before the age of 7 seem to wear off almost completely by the age of 11 (cf Finland.)

          Does this help?

          • Doug_Lemov
            August 2, 2014 at 10:54 pm

            well, it clarifies. I had my “parent” hat on when i asked tho, so if saying it ‘helped’ implies that I was happy to hear it, probably not. kind of saddening as a parent. i might just choose to willfully disregard it and go on assuming that everything i do as a dad will help them in the end. [goes to pour a drink]

  2. Doug_Lemov
    August 2, 2014 at 4:07 pm

    True. Maybe not all the time. and maybe not everybody. but i do think there’s evidence that you can change your perceptions over time (more easily than your physiology at least) and that this can even result in physical changes within the brain. still thanks for rthe clarification and the reminder that even if you CAN change it’s still often really hard.

  3. Emmathommas
    August 2, 2014 at 10:59 pm

    The exact opposite is true: as the places available become scarcer, like in elite football, practice matters much more. Obviously.

    • Doug_Lemov
      August 2, 2014 at 11:01 pm

      well, that’s what i always thought. have you read Epstein’s book, though?

      • Emmathommas
        August 2, 2014 at 11:24 pm

        No, if he claims genes matter most as you go up the ability range, he is making an obvious mistake. There are going to be a lot of almost equally naturally able people near the top and environmental factors matter a huge amount. This is certainly true of exceptionally bright children at current grammar schools, for example. My son goes to the best boys grammar school in the country and the differences in the results of the children in that school are a function of how much work the individual children put in.

        Who believes the difference between the clever scientists who win the Nobel Prize and those who don’t is due to the differences in their big IQs? No one, that is who.

        • Doug_Lemov
          August 2, 2014 at 11:26 pm

          i think you’re mistaking the arguments he’s making. and certainly i’m not. but you should read his book.

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