Educational leadership & learning

Bounce into 2016

I finally read Matthew Syed‘s enlightening book about the myth of talent and the power of practice over this Christmas. I was particularly keen to do so having heard him speak at Hampshire’s Primary headteachers conference in Spring 2015. For my thoughts following his presentation that day please see:  

Matthew Syed explains the importance of practice and the popular view of needing at least 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery at something.

However he also talks purposeful practice, rather than autopilot practice, the power of internal motivation of the learner, the need to constantly step outside your comfort zone, the value of expert coaching and the importance of specific feedback. There is so much that links to the work of people like John Hattie and Carol Dweck.

Whilst reading it I was reminded of two examples from my ‘sporting’ experiences.

As a child I often used to watch my uncle play hockey. This motivated me to want to play the game and I therefore spent more time practising. I played for the school team, but at the age of 15 I was invited to join the men’s team that my uncle played for, which I did. Playing regularly with and against grown men who were stronger, more experienced and often more skilled than me forced me to up my game. I made many more mistakes but developed far more by stepping into my learning zone. When I then played games for the school team against other schools it seemed much easier.

The other experience I reflected on was running. Not something I maintain for long enough periods of time to really sustain improvement. During my twenties when I ran with someone it was a friend who was a bit slower than myself, which I enjoyed but didn’t stretch me. During that time an easy pace for me was about 12 minute miles. During the last few years of my thirties I started running with another friend for whom an easy pace is 9 minute miles, but can manage close to 8 minute miles in races. Not surprisingly my fitness level has significantly improved. My easy pace is now around 9 minute miles and I can manage 8.30 minute miles in races (just).

Bouncing back to Matthew Syed’s book, below are some quotes that I would recommend sharing:

  • The differences between expert performers and normal adults reflect a life-long persistence of deliberate effort to improve performance.
  • When we witness extraordinary feats we are witnessing the end product of a process measured in years.
  • Good decision-making is about compressing the informational load by decoding the meaning of patterns derived from experience.
  • “My secret is practice. I have always believed that if you want to achieve anything special in life you have to work, work and then work some more.” (David Beckham)
  • It is only possible to clock up meaningful practice if an individual has made an independent decision to devote themself to whatever field of expertise…Psychologists call this ‘internal motivation’.
  • When most people practice they focus on the things they can do effortlessly. Expert practice is different. It entails considerable, specific and sustained efforts to do something you can’t do well…it is only by working at someone you can’t do that you turn into the expert you want to become.
  • Deliberate / purposeful practice: practice sessions of aspiring champions have a specific and never-changing purpose: progress…to push oneself beyond the outer limits of one’s capacities, to engage so deeply in the task that one leaves the training session, literally, a changed person.
  • Purposeful practice is about striving for what is just out of reach and not quite making it; it is about grappling with tasks beyond current limitations and falling short again and again. Excellence is about stepping outside the comfort zone, training with a spirit of endeavour, and accepting the inevitability of trials and tribulations. Progress is built, in effect, upon the foundations of necessary failure.
  • If you don’t know what you are doing wrong, you can never know what you are doing right…We need to know where we are going wrong if we are going to improve.
  • Great coaches (teachers) are able to design practice so that feedback is embedded in the drill, leading to automatic adjustment, which in turn improves the quality of feedback, generating further improvements.
  • A key factor driving success and failure is to be found within the realm of motivation…I could see that one’s attitudes could change, adapt, expand. And it seemed deeply significant.
  • “Praising children harms their motivation, and it harms their performance.” (Carol Dweck)
  • The only way for a growth mindset to bed down is for effort orientated praise to be constantly repeated

So what does all  this mean for our development as a school and the children’s learning and growth during 2016?

I think it means carefully designed and deliberate practice to enable the children to master the knowledge and skills for their year group. Developing this learning and the curriculum in partnership with the children to promote their intrinsic motivation. Ensuring that each child experiences some struggle in each session, to ensure they are in their stretch or learning zone. To give clear and precise feedback to the children and to create time for them to respond to that feedback. Finally to continue to promote their effort and the process of learning via Growth Mindset.

And if that’s what we want for our children, then surely we should want the same for our staff, as we continue to grapple, make sense of, practice, take risks, make mistakes, receive feedback to continue to develop our practice and Growth Mindset.


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